29 Mar 2021

65 Three Men


I tried to imagine some time in the future when I look back at our 20+ years in El Pinar and recall my most rememberable places, events and people. I was surprised to find the three men and three women I came up with were all of the same generation and had all passed away. I am sure there must be many others, then and now, who are equally noteworthy but, I am sure, as “Piñeros” not so authentic. I don’t want this to look like obituaries so I am not accompanying the text with their photographs.

      When in the early 70’s the intelligentsia at the University of La Laguna rediscovered El Hierro, they discovered Eloy Quintero.  After years of insignificance and hardship he was suddenly a somebody. I first met him in the passage outside his workshop where a small group of people had gathered to pass the time with this small, wiry, unread man. His audience included a doctor, a university professor and a German nuclear waste engineer … Eloy promoted himself as a craftsman. He wasn’t. At least not in the usual sense of the word. He was just incredibly able at anything he turned his hand to. From wood he made everything from castanets to adze handles, and from looms to bird cages. He had a small forge where he fashioned horseshoes, knives, and tools. He worked tin and made flutes from plastic conduit pipes, and sandals from leather. He made wine, grew potatoes and onions, and knew the best fishing spots on the coast. He built dry stone walls and roofed part of my house. In other words, he could do everything that a subsistence peasant on the island had had to do for centuries. Including traditional dancing and stick fighting.
      But Eloy was not only hands. His knowledge of local plants seemed boundless, but he was botanically pragmatic: once he saw some flowers I had planted, “Very pretty,” he said, “but what do they give you?” Every wild plant I asked him about was good for some ailment or other, though I imagine much of his knowledge of folk medicine was made up on the spur of the moment. In truth, if he did not know the answer to any question on the island’s history or folklore, or for that matter about anything else, he would not hesitate to invent a quite plausible one.
      Eloy’s abilities, energy and resourcefulness made him invaluable to any inquisitive visitor to El Pinar. In fact, his name became a referent, something which undoubtedly generated not a little envy among many in El Pinar. On his death, a street was named after him but over the last twenty years I have not even once heard him mentioned. I don’t think this matters: Eloy fathered a large family which is now a huge clan, including great-great-grandchildren who are not likely to forget the ancestor they never met.  

      I think it was on our first New Year’s Eve in El Pinar. My wife and I and the children were more tired than in the mood for celebrations as darkness fell and the cold night air crept into our house, at that time little more than a pile of stones. Then, Juan Pascual and his wife Eulalia appeared bearing a cake, some dried figs, a fresh goats’ cheese and a bottle of wine. I thought of “Greeks bearing gifts” but I was quite wrong. They said they were lonely and had no-one with whom to welcome in the new year. Of course, that was not really true: they did not want to make us feel embarrassed. We were surprised by this hospitality from an older man I had only once met briefly and we spent a very pleasant evening swapping stories, and jokes.
      Juan Pascual’s sense of humour was something few people saw and fewer appreciated. It was rather like English humour, if such a thing exists. On one occasion, a couple of locals and I were waiting at his house for him when he arrived carrying on his shoulder a hoe. The head of the old tool was very worn down. One of us pulled his leg claiming the hoe was his grandson’s beach toy. Juan Pascual squinted at it for a moment before saying, “God! They don’t make them like they used to! This one was new when I left this morning!” Juan Pascual lived almost next door to Eloy and there was a discrete rivalry between the two very different men. Juan Pascual was taller and heavier and, in consonance, quieter and more circumspect than his neighbour. He made no attempt to impress you with knowledge of “things Herreñas” and, if stumped by a question, he was likely to respond with a preposterous assertion – I once asked him why seagulls flocked up to the village at 850 metres above sea level. He replied, “They are the souls of dead villagers come to check on their wives!”
      He had emigrated to Venezuela and had come home with a little money which he invested judiciously in pieces of land, to the envy of some of the villagers, especially those who had sold. He was accused, rightly or wrongly, of cheating when he slaughtered a sheep and sold off the meat. It’s true he was thrifty and recycled everything. I once helped him set up sprinklers to water a field of potatoes – the main hosepipe had been patched up with strips of rubber so many times you could hardly see the yellow and black stripes of the original plastic. And he worked hard and was strong for his age. I saw him carry on his shoulder an ard with a four- or five-metre draft-pole.
      With apparently no previous warning he fell ill and was taken to hospital. He seemed cheerful enough but suddenly aged. He told me he would only be discharged feet-first. For three days after his funeral, as I worked in the garden he so often mocked me for, I felt distinctly uncomfortable with a solitary seagull perched on the roof of the winery observing me. Coincidence?

      As a boy he used to impersonate the village curate and so Pancho became known as Pancho Cura. Since nicknames here are passed down, I’m not really sure whether it was my Pancho or his father who was the original imitator. In any case, the Pancho Cura I am writing about welcomed us to the island on the day we arrived for the first time. It was high up in the mountains at the vantage point of Jinama. Although it was August, we were frozen. He took us into his stable, ecologically heated by fermenting sheep dung, and gave the children sheep’s milk straight from the udder in grimy plastic yoghurt pots. The children loved it and his hospitality was the beginning of as close a friendship as any foreigner can have with an islander.
      It was just before our first Christmas here and we decided to have lamb on the 25th, so I went up into the mountains to find Pancho. Despite the dense swirling mist, I did find him, wrapped up in a shepherd’s blanket and huddled against a stone wall. He pointed to his barely visible flock and told me to grab whichever lamb I fancied; he was going to stay warm where he was. I managed to convince him to go himself because he knew better, and he soon appeared holding up a lamb in front of him by its hind legs. I realized he had made a mistake (or was he testing the Englishman?). Shepherds usually want to keep the female lambs. He dropped the creature and came back, this time with a lovely little fat male lamb. I had obviously impressed him, for he refused any payment.
      Pancho, like Juan Pascual, had a fine sense of humour. I found him one day at home watching a grainy black and white television retransmission of Los Panchos, a group of even then aging Peruvians who sang boleros. He looked up at me and said, “You want to watch these. If they keep on practising, they are going to be pretty good one day!” He had quite a lot of land, especially mountain grazing land where he kept his sheep. When he seriously started feeling old and tired, he found a buyer for the flock and sold off the fields as well. This was to be the end of shivering for him and the end of cheesemaking for his wife. He did not tell her anything about his decision for some days. When he did, she naturally protested she would have no milk for her cheese. “Don’t worry, old girl,” he said, “From now on we’re going to milk the savings bank!”
      They did, but he did not live much to enjoy it. But the tradition continues in his son, Panchillo Cura (Little Pancho the Curate).