El Coto Doñana.
I stepped off the ship’s ladder onto the cat. She was quite shipshape, as Jimmy and I had checked everything before we refloated her. I glanced up at the bridge. Frank, the skipper, put his hand to his cap in a salute, and I saluted back. He looked grim, unsmiling. I wondered if it was me or perhaps he was just one of those people who wake up in a bad mood. I didn’t want to have this unsmiling memory of someone who had done so much for me and had been so good, so I upturned my arms enquiringly. Then he smiled. It made me feel happy and warm inside, and I smiled back; the biggest, widest smile I could muster as I mouthed the words ‘Thaaaaank you, thank you, skipper.’
He responded by waving a finger at me in what was meant to be a make sure you behave gesture, and then the loudspeaker crackled. ‘Find the lady, boy, and be careful. Don’t do anything too rash.’
I cast off the line that was still holding the cat to the side of the vessel, let the sail out to catch the wind, and she spun off gleefully. I put her onto one fin a couple of times and waved at the seamen. Overnight, the weather had changed, and it was a beautiful sunny day. The storm had blown itself out, and a fresh, delightful Poniente was blowing from Africa. The crew waved as I sailed towards the beach. Looking back, I had my first view of the vessel. I had come onto her at night and so had not seen her. She was snub-nosed and black, with winches and thick hawsers lying all over her. A real working girl, Frank had told me, and she was beautiful lying there in the sunlight. Then I saw her name written in gold and black letters on her side, MV Maria, and below that, as port of origin, Gibraltar. So she had heard me. I was so afraid, but she was there with me all along. When they found me, they were on a return run from England, Portsmouth, a big English port. They had towed a ship there and were coming home. That they found me at all was, as Jimmy termed it,
‘Un Milagro. A miracle. Masuhun, t’aparecio la virgin (The Virgin appeared to you.) I think it was a Spanish saying, but he was so right, the mother had intervened for me.
The beach was quite close now and deserted, except for the occasional fisherman.
I hit the sand side on so the wind would not tip me over in the few seconds before I released the sail once on land. I started to pull her up the sand, but she was a bit heavy for one. A man came over from where he was fishing and said, ‘Pesa mucho.’ (Very heavy.)
I said yes, ‘Sí.’ But my Spanish vocabulary and use of the language were very rusty, so I told him, ‘English.’
He said, ‘Ohh, engleesh. No engleesh.’ He smiled and gestured, then walked up the beach towards where the dune grass was growing and came back pulling on a rope over his shoulder. All the while, he spoke to me and explained in signs. We were going to pull her up using his ancient wooden winch. It worked with a bar that he inserted across the top and we pushed and pulled so that the cat came up the sands. Once she was right up and safe from tides and future storms, we sat on one of her fins, and he smoked a smelly cigarette he called ‘mis ducados’ as we drank water from my knapsack. Jimmy had replenished my stores with fresh sandwiches and hot tea in the thermos flask.
Later, I found the small house where Frank had sent me.
‘I don’t really know them,’ he said. ‘But they seem good people. I’m sure if you mention my name, they will let you stay at least for a night.’
So I knocked on the door. It was a small whitewashed sort of terraced cottage with a smart new door and windows. On either side were shabbier houses, but their gardens were resplendent with colour from the many lovely plants growing in beds, pots on windowsills, and hanging from the walls. The house I was to be visiting was in the deep shade, whereas the neighbours were flooded with warm sunlight, making it seem ominous and threatening somehow. I looked behind myself to see that the culprit was just a big tree blocking the light. I pressed the doorbell and heard a chime within. The door was opened by a lady of some forty years. I say forty because she was fat and I could not judge her age. I just knew for a fact that she wasn’t twenty-one or twenty-five or anything. She could have been forty or fifty or even sixty. So I decided to think of her as being forty and see how she evolved as I got to know her.
‘¿Que quieres?’ (What do you want ?)
‘English,’ I replied.
‘Paco, un ingle, un guiri.’ (Paco, an English guy.) A tall skinny man with a large Adam’s apple suddenly appeared beside her, well above her and to one side. He craned his neck over her shoulder and looked at me quizzically, peering over the top of a pair of glasses.
‘Spik eengleesh pleez?’
‘Yes, sir. Frank sent me. Frank said you would give me a bed for one night and look after my catamaran.’
‘¿Que dice, que dice?’ the fat lady chimed in. ‘Que a mi me parece un guiri muy raro. Parece gitano o moro. De guiri poco. ¿Que e lo que te a dicho Paco?’ (What’s he saying, what’s he saying? He seems very strange looking English to me. He looks Gypsy or Moroccan. Nothing English about him. What did he say to you, Paco?)
‘Dice que su padre es Aleman, y que están en San Lucar, y que se quiere quedar una noche a dormir.’ (He says his father is German, and he is in San Lucar, and he wants to stay one night to sleep.)
‘¿Y porque no se va con su padre?’ (And why doesn’t he go with his father?)
‘Porque el niño se vino en un barquito y no puede volver, y que mañana viene su papi a por el.’ (Because the boy came in a small boat and cannot return, and tomorrow his father will come to fetch him.)
‘¿Y porque aquí?’ (And why here?)
‘Porque l án mandao mujer. Tantas preguntas, parece una civila.’ (Because they have sent him, woman. So many questions, you are like a female Civil Guard.)
‘¿Y quien la mandao?’ (And who sent him?)
‘El Cura, la mandao, el Cura.’ (The Priest, the priest, sent him.)
‘Con el cura voi habla yo.’ (I am going to have words with the priest.)
The fat woman went back into the house, pushing the tall man, who dodged so that she stumbled and nearly fell. I was quite worried, as it seemed as if they were arguing or something about me.
‘Is it all right?’ I asked timidly.
‘Yes, all right, don’t worry.’ Then he gestured at me with a crooked finger, beckoning me closer. I put my ear forward. ‘Don’t say the name Frank here. She don’t like him.’
‘What do you mean? Frank is a nice good man,’ I whispered back.
‘She says he takes me to meet bad women; he is a bad influence.’
‘Does he?’ I was quite shocked.
‘I take him,’ he whispered. ‘He don’t wan come, but he come. Also, we play cards and drink. Listen, boy, what your name?’
So I told him my name, and he said we had to go to see the priest to tell him the same story as he had told his wife or there would be trouble.
‘Beeg trouble, Masuhun. La Debo, she is like weetch.’
So I told him a little of my story; just that I was seeking a talisman and that it involved historical churches in the region.
‘A talisman, yes.’ Then as he winked knowingly at me, I wondered what he was thinking. ‘And they send a boy. It looks better, no one suspects. So I will phone my cousin Pepe and a couple of friends. They have contacts; they will help. Wait here, Masuhun.’
I hated the idea of cronies and phoning friends and cousins. My father would always discuss with us if he were going to ask or do a favour, as he did not want to be unfair to others. And it was a rare occasion anyway. He always warned against joining clubs or societies with a view to currying favour or meeting new influential friends. Friends are for friendship, not for preferment, he would always say, and the rest is in the hands of God. I would have taken Paco in good faith and tried to find the road with his help, but not in this way. So I went back to the beach where I had met the old man. He was by the shore still fishing. He looked at me questioningly with open hands.
‘¿Que paso?’ I took him by the arm and drew a church in the sand and a woman with a baby. Why I don’t know. He simply gave me a sense of tranquillity. He was just an old man with whom I could scarcely communicate, and whom I had only met. But there was something about him that inspired my trust.
‘Maria,’ I said. In our tradition, we never named the mother, but here she was named Mary, as the steersman had said, or Maria. Just like the MV Maria.
‘Sí, Maria,’ I said. He took the stick from my hand and wrote 0700 in the sand. I said tomorrow, and he nodded. We laughed, and he repeated.
‘Tamorau, tamorau.’ His name was Amador, and his boat was also named Amador. We went back to casting his lines for a while. He taught me how to bait the hook and cast the line so that you could see it arcing through the evening sky, landing far beyond where one would expect it to, with just the slightest of splashes.
I left Amador as it was getting dark. As I neared the house again, I saw what looked like police, a jeep outside the house, so I instinctively hid. I knew nothing of the police in this country, but if the ones at home were anything to go by, it would be better to avoid them. A uniformed man was standing by the open vehicle, smoking. Youngish, with short hair and a long drooping moustache, he looked around as if waiting for someone. I heard a rustle in the bushes, and Paco’s mournful features appeared. He was holding a finger to his lips, cautioning silence.
‘La Debo, she call her nephew, Julian. He is with the Guardia Civil. She is suspicious, think you are terrorist or thief. You sleep in shed tonight, so they think you go.’
So he led me along the road to a makeshift wooden shed. I carried my bag and things, even the sandwiches Jimmy had made for me. Inside the room was a bed with a blanket, so I would be OK for the night, I mused.
And then Paco closed the door behind him. I could hear that his breathing was louder and faster. Through the window, the moonlight flooding in illuminated his face, which had taken on an evil, lascivious leer. He extended an arm to touch me. ‘You are so beautiful.’
I had never contemplated whether I was attractive to look at or not; after all, I was a boy and not a girl. In our world, boys became men, and their worth was based on how they lived and behaved. What was happening was not good, so I dodged and arm-blocked his arm with mine, then I kicked right towards where I knew it would hurt. He just collapsed in a heap, squealing.
‘Why, why?’ he screeched.
I grabbed my things and made for the door, grasping the blanket I had pulled off the bed. ‘Because I am fifteen and must decide my own paradigms in life, as also my own nature. And I don’t really understand, but think you wanted to abuse your power over a helpless rabbit, who, sadly for you, has teeth.’
I ran from the shed down towards where I knew the beach would be after having locked the man into his own hut. It was about a kilometre or so to where I could see the Amador silhouetted in the moonlight. The boat was covered with makeshift canvas awnings that I pulled back so I could climb in. It smelled of old fish, hemp rope, old canvas, and boat oil. It was an incredibly clean odour, honest and sane. I pulled the canvas sheets back over the boat and covered myself with the blanket against the night cold blowing off the sea. I unwrapped the sandwiches and ate them hungrily, then fell asleep, a slumber full of knights in white tunics and something evil and slithery insinuating itself into the dream only to have its head lopped off. There was also a beautiful woman with a child.
I woke with a start and looked around. It was black, pitch black. For a few seconds, I couldn’t remember anything till the smell of old fish and ropes brought it all rushing back. The sea made a murmuring sound that, as I listened, became waves gently breaking on the shore. Then I could feel someone moving the canvas coverings.
‘Buenos días, muchacho (young man).’ Amador smiled in at me. He didn’t seem very surprised to see me sleeping in his boat, more like he had just pulled back the coverings to wake me.
‘Nos vamos,’ he gestured and helped me collect my bag and the blanket. We hurried over to an ancient, squarish, small blue van-like car with small letters on the doors telling people what I imagined was her name. He confirmed it by pointing at himself and stating ‘Amador,’ then pointing at the car as he slapped it affectionately.
‘El Tremendo. Se llama El Tremendo.’ (The tremendous one.)
So we started. To where, I knew not, in the company of an old man with whom I could scarcely communicate, and in a foreign country where the little I remember of its language was just very slowly beginning to come back to me. I was happy, though. I was on my way, had found a friend, and had Maria and her son to protect me.
Amador drove safely, but slowly. Every half an hour or less, we made a stop for him to smoke a ducados. He had a problem with bridges and went around them, never across. When I challenged him one of the times he turned off as we approached an overhead, saying, ‘¿Amador, que pasa bridge?’ he just laughed and waved a hand in the air.
I had no idea where we were going till I started to see the place name Algeciras again and again. It was an untidy, ugly, industrial type of scenario with warehouses, lots of lorries, and spaghetti junctions. It was a relief to turn off the main highway onto a side road. After some 100 metres, a nondescript sign appeared indicating Ronda, Castellar, and Jimena. As we went gradually up into the hills, the scenery changed dramatically into vast rolling expanses, lush fields, and hillsides, replete with cattle. Then there were even bigger fields planted with grain, wheat, and hay; the wheat stalks, still green but heavy with mazurkas, swayed rhythmically in the wind. The contrast to the road we were on earlier was remarkable. Thank God our destination wasn’t Algeciras. Grandiose, elaborate gateways led to unseen stately haciendas and estancias that, in my imagination, would be nestled in protected valleys, hidden from the main road. You could see stables, and now and again training fields. We saw proud horses and normal working farm horses, and once even a mini bullring. This could well be matador terrain, wild bull country.
My father had often spoken to me of one mad summer when he went with his father to a town called Pamplona in the Basque north of Spain. He gave his father the slip in the evening and ran with the bulls. It was an honour, a tradition of man against the wild animal. My father said that today, the same illness destroying the west could be seen at Pamplona, where alcohol, drugs, lust for money, and lewd sexuality in all its forms had reduced the proud Basque tradition to a drunken orgy. A shell of what he once experienced.
We passed through rolling measureless hills, feeding grounds for the skulking dangerous, yet beautiful, beasts. There would be vast haciendas where the legendary toro bravo was initially nurtured before being led out to pasture on his enormous domain, there to gain strength as he grew to young adulthood and his terrible future.
We reached a crossroads and carried on to Castellar and Jimena, leaving San Martin del Tesorillo, proudly identified by its roadside sign, off to the right. Amador needed to stop, so we went into a very rustic looking roadside tavern. I sat outside, where a man came and sat with me. He was old, and for some reason, he had air about him that said donkey keeper. So I asked him
‘Señor, donkeys, burros?’
He replied with a smile. ‘I speak English. And yes, I am friendly with donkeys and asses, burros y asnos.’ I didn’t dare say anything, but he sounded just the like Frank the tugboat skipper when he spoke.
‘Do you know this area well, sir?’
He nodded assent and smiled, so I continued. ‘I just need to know if there’s a stone here with a sacred mother holding a child.’
He pondered for a while.
‘Amador told me you would ask.’
‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t know you were friends.’
‘No, you were too intrigued by my donkey smell.’
‘No, sir.’ I started forward. ‘I meant no disrespect.’
‘I know that,’ he chuckled. ‘Anyway, you were very right. How the devil you knew is beyond me. I do live with donkeys, you see, you must be a very intuitive person.
‘Let me tell you what I know of the sacred mother you seek. In the year 711, a Berber general, Tariq Ibn Zayd, invaded the peninsula and defeated the Visigoth king Roderic. Arab rule was subsequently established and lasted for hundreds of years. In 1309, King Ferdinand the fourth, accompanied by Don Alfonso, Don Alvaro Perez de Guzman, and other nobles, expelled the Arabs from Gibraltar, a rock at the southernmost point of the peninsula and crucial to Arab military domination. Ferdinand gave thanks to the Lord for his victory and dedicated Europe, Christian Europe, to the mother of Jesus under the title of our Lady of Europa. An ancient mosque at the very tip of Gibraltar was converted into a shrine to the mother of God, and a statue sculpted in limestone was venerated there. Twenty-four years later, the Arabs, conscious of the essential strategic importance of this rock, recaptured it. The inhabitants of the fortress, devoted to and fervent in their belief in the virgin, carried this effigy in holy procession to Castilian dominated land and safety, in spite of tremendous odds and in courageous defiance of the invading forces.’
‘Faith really does move mountains,’ I murmured, caught up in the tale.
‘Just think of it,’ he said. ‘Those little Christians carrying the object of their faith, an effigy made of limestone, probably by sculptors of the most humble origins. All around them seeing killing, hearing horrendous screaming, fighting, and armed mounted Arab warriors brandishing scimitars. With dignity and showing no fear, singing in praise and glorification of the mother, they marched in procession all through this. And not a hair on the head of any participant in that procession was harmed.’
Amador arrived, and we sat for a while. I sat in silence, just thinking, while they drank a beer and chatted. When Amador and I headed back to the car, the man followed us to see us off, then took me by the arm.
‘Good luck, boy. Your friend will take you now to see her. The virgin disappeared for some 400 years after this procession, until she was found in a niche behind a curtain in the old convent. Today this nunnery is a church, a sanctuary to a virgin that the locals have named La Señora de Los Angeles. Yes, Masuhun, she is the virgin that originally came in the procession from the shrine on the rock.’
It was evening time, and the sky was darkening quickly as we entered the sanctuary gates. There was singing, and the little chapel was filled with the devout, women with their heads covered by veils, old men, and children. I walked right up to the altar and saw the statue of a woman holding a baby. The scent of recently collected flowers and incense filled the shrine as I slowly knelt down and asked her to help my father, but deep inside, I knew my quest was not over and that I needed to go to the shrine, the rock or stone, and then she would answer me. The village women just left me there, as they knew I was thinking of her. Then I stood up and walked out.
I awoke in front of the sanctuary, holding myself, rolled in a ball as if such actions would fend off the cool of the night. Something had disturbed me. It was still dark, and apart from the night noises, there was a rustling accompanied by the sound of heavy steps and dragging. I curled up tightly and tried to blend more effectively into the shadow of the fence against which I was sheltering. I must have been in that position for ages when at last I noticed, as if in a dream, the faintest suggestion of dawn in the pitch black surrounding me. Then I heard a cock crow, again, and again, and the words, uninvited and unthought of, flitted across my mental vision, ‘I would never betray you.’ In the slowly rising dawn, I was able to discern a figure hooded in the Arab way and wrapped in what appeared to be heavy robes—a chilaba, maybe, or some sort of cassock. It stopped, facing me in the darkness, then sat slowly down as if with great difficulty or pain on the bench.
‘Puedes salir ya.’ (You can come out now.) It was the voice of a woman, probably very aged. It brought to mind the old Berber women of the desert who lived in tents and had great wisdom. I had often gone there with my father to visit them. In my reduced condition, my earlier apprehension had gone, so resigned, I emerged slowly, shivering and in a trance-like state induced by the cold and lack of sleep.
‘Here sit with me.’ She leaned forward to loosen a blanket that was slung over her shoulder and handed it to me. I wrapped its thick folds around my body, and slowly, the shivering spasms decreased. She raised her hand to put me at ease, and in the oblique twilight, I thought I could make out a smile. Her face seemed to be wrinkled in every way; her eyes, forehead, cheeks were all creased to the extreme, her features coloured light but intense Bedouin brown. When she smiled, all her stern demeanour seemed to lift as if it had been a veil. The first furtive rays of sunlight showed me her eyes, which were vivid green and shone so that I just stared, drawn in by her ancient enigmatic beauty.
‘Are you an angel? How did you know I was there?’
‘No, bless you. Just a very old woman. I knew because your fear was speaking to me. Human beings are equipped with great telepathic powers; sadly, they will disappear over the millennia if not used vigorously. You are different, as are so many of the children of the so-called third world. You have been kept apart from all the technological instrumentation of today so that your body is aware of its wakening powers, although only subconsciously. Of course, the powers that be are rapidly ensuring that the whole of humanity, even those made less fortunate by the geography of their nations, falls prey to their telephones, computers, and as much of their technological poison as they can muster. Poison that, administered in limited doses with proper controls, would be a blessing.
‘How strong is your faith, boy?’
I was taken aback. Perhaps she had already mentally touched my mind with thoughts of betrayal. ‘My faith, Mother? I believe in all that my parents have taught me, what I learnt from the church, catechism. I believe that my parents have always done their best to lead us along the right path.’
‘No!’ her eyes blazed, and her voice became hard. ‘Your faith, boy! Tell me about your faith! Your faith!’
I didn’t really understand what she wanted, so I told her what had happened. I told her of the sea trip and the Maria.
‘Do you know what happened here? How many Arabs fought and died over this holy land, inspired by their prophet and the idea that God sent them? And how many Christians, Visigoths, Spaniards, and Knights Templar shed their blood, fought to the last man, possessed with faith? They lived their lives for their beliefs, the sincere ones; and so many were sincere, fervently true to their unyielding faith, their God, and what they believed he wanted of them. It may well have been a natural event, a territorial war or series of wars, a shifting of cultures, and the complicated algorithms of the balance of power. But time has shown me that the gods we worship are all the same God and that we should all worship together, each in his own way.’ She carried on speaking, but with such clarity and passion that I was mesmerised.
‘The first requirement in this enlightened era of passionate and real faith is to create truth, to build a truth on that faith by learning to discern between good and evil. To build a truth that will be the paradigm of good and to identify the devil, evil, in its multiple disguises. Only then, by teaching others to pass on this word, by using every device to amass the armies of the Lord, can we bring the light of God back to the world.’
‘Why are you telling me, all this? I don’t follow, but it seems that you think people with a strong faith should question everything, everything they see and hear, and becoming aware, must try to make others aware.’
‘Masuhun? Masuhun, is that not your name?’
I was amazed and frightened. How could this old lady know me? It was uncanny, and the hairs on my arms stood on end. What was happening?
‘How do you know me, my name?’ I stuttered and stood, getting ready to bolt. She quietened me, and I fell back onto the bench as she spoke words such as my father had just a few days ago.
‘Do you know the meaning of your name, Masuhun?’
I replied what my father had told me. ‘I am named for the anointed one, the baby in the arms of the mother, the child who was Jesus of Nazareth, the Messias.’
‘I am telling you all this because you are chosen to follow the road of reason, to find your way and teach others to build a new truth. You are one of many upon whom the notion and subsequent conviction has already fallen or will fall, in all corners of the world. It is your collective faith that will be the new chance for mankind to survive and live up to the expectations of the Creator.’
I shivered in my blanket and looked at her; it was all a bit above my head, like a dream.
‘Are you like me, then? What are you?’
‘I am a Jewess who left everything to be with the mother. I was born amongst English speaking peoples many years ago. Understand that you will have a journey and you will see evil. You are armed to recognise it and disarm it, but the devil is insidious and clever. You will suffer and know great fear, and many will seek to harm you and speak evil of you because of your faith. You will think yourself right when you are wrong and wrong when you are right. Think of the son of the mother and follow his path.’
We sat there in silence for a time as I absorbed what she had been saying. I must have dozed off. I shook the sleep from my head and looked for her, but she was gone, and so was the blanket.