“¡Cuidado!” he spat over the barrel of his rifle. Leather skin creased in concentration.
He didn’t lower the gun or take his eye off the target.
But his four allies, all huddled around an old wine barrel next to the entrance of the bar, had the courtesy to point out the target across the road. As if to say: careful, mate, you nearly cocked up his shot!
This little rural-house-cum-bar had been my beacon for the last three hours I’d been hiking and huffing my way through the rural landscapes of Piloña in Asturias, northern Spain. This wasn’t the greeting I’d anticipated.
Leatherface took his time to take his shot. And then took the insults that were hurled at him by his amigos as he missed the target for what was clearly the umpteenth time that afternoon.
They laughed and rolled, mocking hand-slaps on thighs like grandads in the playground. Chesty twenty-a-day laughs. Chuckles that came out almost silently, causing the men to break into dry and dusty coughs. Coughs that were remedied with more cigarettes and sips of oaky ambar from glass thimbles.
“Me cago en la leche!” (I shit in the milk) croaked Leatherface, shaking his head. “Cago en dios!” (I shit on God!).
It was a beautifully shaved head. Like a swimmer’s. Clean in a way that accentuated the deep crevices that formed in his forehead when he smiled. No, he wasn’t smiling. He was wincing, glaring, trying to understand how he could have missed – again!
His friend, a little stumpy fella with thinning but impressively curly silver locks and green tattoos almost fell over with laughter.
A younger man wearing slippers took the rifle. He knocked it in half, thumbed a small pellet into the barrel, lifted the gun to his shoulder and pulled the trigger in what seemed like one fluid motion. The orange target in the grass ‘tinged’ – metal on metal – and spun around a few times.
But there was no reaction. No display of joy or victory. Just another shot well made, a momentary relief from the boredom. He cocked the gun and put it down. Lit another cigarette.
Still very much in need of a cold cerveza, I took the opportunity to step inside the bar. A teenager with a tie-dyed shirt and pink slippers followed me inside, assuming a position behind the bar that indicated she worked there. I’d never have guessed. She had the lazy shuffle of a person whose heart-rate is seldom required to rise during the waking hours of day.
As I lifted the cool glass to my lips, sinking half of the beer in one greedy gulp, she scuffled back outside. This time I followed her.
“Am I safe if I sit here?” I asked the crowd, only half joking.
“Si, claro,” gestured the short man with the silver curls and the faded tattoos, jokingly pointing the gun at my chest and pretending to shoot holes in it – “Pap, pap, pap!”. Head back, teeth bared. His wheezy chest rumbling.
I laughed it off, willing to do almost anything at this point to work my way into the fold. But I did consider how much damage could have potentially been done by this complete stranger. And what was that they were all drinking?
He held the gun up and tucked the stock under his shoulder, bringing his big crimson face down to meet the barrel. His small frame became rigid, immovable, and his breath stilled. The target tinged and span wildly. He gave me a brief glance, clearly struggling to keep a grin from taking over his face. Now I knew who was who.
He passed the gun to the shuffling bar woman and lifted his tiny glass of gold back into slurping position.
“What are they drinking?” I asked. “Arujo?”
“Ah, so that’s the secret,” I replied.
Shuffler gripped the gun and eyed up the target while lighting another cigarette. Her stance was wide, taking little puffs on her cigarette all the while.
She put the cigarette down in an ashtray on the table in front of me, still keeping the gun aimed at the target. A wider, more purposeful-looking stance. A more craned neck. Better posture. And then a put–fwap–ting and a twirling metal target.
She didn’t look at me, or at anyone else, but as she turned to pick up her cigarette it seemed obvious to me that the whole thing had been an act of bravado. It was she, Shuffler, who was the hottest gunslinger in this village, not Silverlocks.
I offered a small applause.
Leatherface hoisted himself back up out of his chair and wrestled the gun into place. He wasn’t going to miss again.
Silverlocks berated him with a solid stream of insults, distracting him and playing up to the new guy, to this audience of one.
But as he aimed the gun, Leatherface stumbled and fell back into his chair without any kind of grace. The gun flopped upward, pointing directly at my chest and face as his feet swung into the air.
“Me cago en Dios, estoy burracho!” (Shit on God, I’m drunk!).
His eyes were glossy, a decaying shade of yellow, and I imagined how mine might have looked had he accidentally brushed the trigger at some point during his fall. I instinctively bounced up onto my feet, which caused Shuffler to snicker to herself, amused by my cowardliness.
Leatherface took the shot from his chair. The target did not twirl or ping.
“Tu. Venga. Aqui,” groaned Silverlocks (You. Come. Here.)
I’d just hiked a good few miles and sunk four beers in the 20-minutes or so that this had all taken place, so I was feeling pretty much ready for anything. And besides, I had to regain face in front of Shuffler. I was no coward.
Silverlocks smacked my elbow with the back of his huge hands so that the stock of the gun sank deep into my armpit. It felt strangely familiar. I remembered this feeling, from another life in a different body.
“Aqui. Asi. Ojo.” (Here. Like this. Look.)
I glared down the barrel and lined up the pin at the end with the little orange target. I could feel the silence and hear my pulse – air escaping through my ears.
Realising I was drunk and woozy from the heat and the hike, I hurried my aim and squeezed the trigger. To my delight and dismay, I was greeted with a quiet but clear “ting”.
Even Silverlocks was surprised. Not as much as I was, but still. “Metal en metal – bien, bien!” he explained, as if I hadn’t realised I’d hit the target.
My success confounded Leatherface’s agony and he climbed up out of his chair to leave. Silverlocks laughed and pointed at him, pointing out that he was the only person unable to hit the target.
Having had his fun for the day, and with no one else to bully, Silverlocks tipped back the rest of his whisky and hopped into his car.
He waved at me out of the window with his tattooed arm as he drove off into the lavender haze that now fell over the Picos de Europa mountains.
I too needed to get a wiggle on.
The walk back to my hotel seemed to take a lot longer after my visit to the bar.
Every vista was more beautiful than the last and I stopped every ten steps or so to take photos.
The cows and horses seemed to be calling me, begging me to spend some time with them and watch the sunset over the dramatic landscapes.
Later I was forced to stop a little longer when I came across three cows and bulls in the middle of the path. Hoofing up clumps of clay and chomping away at the scrub, they were happy where they were and weren’t going to move for me.
And that’s when I met Antonia, who, with a little help from her two dogs and a well-worn stick, drove them back to her barn. There was another I route I could take and she’d get me to the beginning of the trail.
We walked unhurriedly together for 30 minutes or so. Antonia pointed out the different villages on the horizon and we talked about the cows and the bulls and the dogs.
“Aren’t you ever scared of those big ones?” I asked, pointing at the bull that had a small shrubbery entangled in his horns.
She laughed and swooshed her stick through the air like Gandalf. “I’m something of an aficionada,” she replied with a cheeky grin.
Do you meet many foreigners here? I asked.
She thought for a moment, before breaking into a gentle chuckle. “You’re the first in my entire life, in 70-something years.”
Antonia set me on the new path and gave me a bunch of important directions in machine gun Spanish that I pretended to understand.
We shook hands. Her skin was coarse, her grip strong, and I was sad to be saying goodbye so soon. I had so many questions about her life, about how she lived. I hoped that maybe she felt the same.
“Can I take a photo of you with the dogs?” I asked.
“Is it for a book? A newspaper? What is it for?”
“No, it’s for me. For my diary. For my memories. This is a very special experience for me – I want to remember it.”
She nodded and rounded up the nearest dog.
I stumbled back to my hotel as dusk fell, past tractors and houses that echoed with the sounds of children playing in swimming pools.
My walk had been more than walk.
I had been somewhere else other than the mountains.
Some time other than now.
More from Asturias, Northern Spain’s “Natural Paradise”