From my house in the Calle la Amiga I heard shouts coming from the Calle Real. As a seven-year-old I could not resist going to find out what event had given rise to such an uproarious hullabaloo. I shot off like an arrow without a second thought, and went to the corner of Calle Real and Rio Verde, where Manolo's father Antonio Mancilla had his tannery. I was sure that Manolo would be waiting for me there. We were the same age and knew each other inside out.
It was a grey autumn afternoon, raining slightly. The year was 1939, when the Civil War was about to end and the postwar era was starting. Two young men had found an injured griffon vulture in El Lario. They were carrying it along in such a way that the poor creature could hardly touch the ground with its claws. There was blood on one of its wings, as if it had been shot with a rifle. The wings must have measured nearly three metres from tip to tip, reaching from one pavement to the other and blocking the whole of the Calle Real.
A group of children came up behind the creature, wanting to get a closer look. But the young men wouldn't let them, for fear that it would try and defend itself. One of them carried a stick. Whenever the vulture made an attempt to flee, he gave it a warning prod and the poor animal looked from one side to the other, as if realising the hopelessness of getting away. On one of these occasions I was able to see its head and its neck, featherless, with the ruff further down forming the plumage that gives it the name leonado. Its expressionless eyes gave out a profound sadness.
Griffon vultures [buitres leonados] were frequently seen in the sky over Alcalá. When they smelled carrion, they would come from the mountain peaks and circle round and round at a great height, as if working out a strategy for falling on a dead mule on the Coracha, a sick cow in the Prado or a wounded deer in the Alcornocales. Later, the band of vultures would remain motionless high in the sky above Alcalá. In the crags of the Alcornocales there were many birds of prey, hunters with robust beaks, strong claws and large wing spans. The Park is one of the biggest in Andalucia and maintains perfect ecosystems for all species; a real treasure of Nature.
People said that they were birds of bad omen, but nobody knew why. The only reason would have been that, when they appeared, they indicated the presence of dead animals and came down to feed on the carrion. For vultures and other carrion-eaters there was no shortage of food in the countryside around Alcalá. As well as carrion, they fed on lizards, snakes, rabbits and any animal left behind by huntsmen. They combed the hills for caza mayor [lit. “big game” e.g.deer, wild boar] and would always find some dead beast left in the undergrowth. Or else they would find animals caught in poachers' traps and never collected.
Luis Berenguer (El Ferrol 1923-Cadiz 1979) was a military sailor, poet and novelist. Attracted by the life of an Alcalá poacher, he wrote in 1966 El Mundo de Juan Lobón, a novel which won the Critics' Prize in 1967. Later he wrote another novel, Marea Escorada, but just as his life as an author was promising to become more fruitful, he died suddenly. Nevertheless El Mundo de Juan Lobón has remained noteworthy as his great literary work.
The retinue followed after the vulture, shouting. They went down the Calle Real from the Plazuela to the Alameda. I don't know how many times they went up and down. Some men who saw them said it was a griffon vulture and that they came from Grazalema. Others said it was a golden eagle. But the young men were certain that the strong, curved beak and the claws were those of a vulture. The poor creature moved its head in sorrow, as if awaiting its sentence. The discussion ended and they dragged the vulture along, forcing it with the stick.
Halfway down the Calle Real, near the house where Dr Antonio Armenta lived, the animal refused to get up again. The young man thrashed it until he could do so no longer. Finally, the creature hung its head and died. Don Antonio stood in his doorway, making a gesture of disapproval at such a death. Later, with his authority as Doctor, he ordered it to be carried to the common land by the Playa, where we played football, and buried. That night, the vulture's sorrowful eyes would not let us sleep.
Translated by Claire Lloyd