The Devil's Clerk

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II

Head of the Sandinista agrarian reform and veteran of the war of independence, Angel was waiting for Ruetcel’s prearranged visit. Calm, around thirty, he gave him a warm welcome in his office. They were about the same age and took a liking to each other from the start.

Ruetcel was conducting a study about deforestation on behalf of the ministry of agriculture. They had asked him to do a survey on the problem, which was worrying, and the practice of drying tobacco over wood fires one of the main culprits. Angel pledged his support and offered to accompany him on his first rounds.

Ruetcel would grow to like this place, he told him. He would certainly enjoy his stay. The island people were friendly, and on the whole, the situation was peaceful. Nothing like up North, where bands of counterrevolutionaries, the “contras,” were creating a climate of terror. On Ometepe war seemed remote. Of course it had its effects on daily life. At times there were shortages of gas or corn, and like everywhere else, food was being rationed. The island’s bus had broken down, and no spare parts were available. The price hikes had people worried. But all in all life was still placid. Ruetcel had been confronted in previous missions to bloody contras’ attacks that had decimated the peasants with whom he’d be working. He was liking the idea of a calm assignment.

During the long hikes through the fields that brought them up the flanks of the volcanoes, Angel helped Ruetcel to understand the geography of his island. He spoke to him of the peasants who shaped the landscape and of the revolution, which was trying to enforce justice through the agrarian reform. He explained the parceling of land, told him the stories of the roads, the properties. In the forest or on plots of land, they would talk with the peasants, who put down their machetes or wooden ploughs to chat with them awhile; they also talked with their wives when they met in the fields or on the roads.

He enjoyed these discussions, particularly on account of the humor of these people. He was delighted with their smiles, which were frequent, like for example during a lull in the conversation, when an angel was passing by. In such circumstances, under different latitudes, an awkward silence might mean a barrier, a distance. With these people, words and time flowed along gently, with the rhythm of the wind, without delay or haste, part of the harmony of their natural surroundings.

They would invite the visitors into their homes. These were rickety straw huts with palm roofs, which hung over the facade like a long fringe. The walls were an assemblage of machete-hewn branches or latticed reeds. The cramped interiors with dirt floors more often than not contained only a huge slab bed, where the whole family slept, and a humble hearth of mixed clay and ashes, with no chimney. A small, tin oil lamp and an electric flashlight sat on the shelf. Outside, a canvas hammock often hung in the shade of two trees, rocking a new-born baby, among banana trees, hibiscus, and the fragrance of terraced orchards.

These people, their habits, and their houses had changed very little over the centuries. Most of them were direct descendants, with almost no interracial mixing, of the natives who were living there five centuries earlier when the conquistadores arrived on the lake in their caravels. Coming from the Caribbean, they had sailed up the Río San Juan. Their surprise grew as they went on, for the river widened as they progressed upstream. Until one day when suddenly the forest had disappeared altogether, Lake Cocibolca stretched across the horizon. In the middle lay Ometepe and its two volcanoes.

Angel and Ruetcel were sitting and talking on a peasant’s patio when a young boy returned from the fields with a sculpted basalt head of a feathered serpent—it was the size of a clenched fist—which he slipped into his grandfather’s hand. The old man showed it to his guests, and seeing their admiration, asked the young boy to go fetch something from his hut. It was a jute sack from which he extracted two ceramic tiles decorated with polychromatic patterns and a basalt turtle. “We find these every day on my banana plot. Our ancestors made them,” he said.

In the village square, in front of the church, Ruetcel had seen basalt statues of naked sitting men, their own heads surmounted by the heads of animals: eagles, hawks, jaguars. There were at least a dozen, standing in a row, nine to twelve feet high. A volcanologist had discovered them ten years earlier, buried under the ash, on the high terrace near the summit of the volcano. Once the earth had been cleared away, they stood erect in a semicircle, facing the rising sun. He had wondered upon seeing these statues. Were there many more, hidden away, buried in the lava folds and under the roots of the forest? And the volcano Concepción, which belched fire and ash daily, who might it represent for the islanders and for this noble old man? Ruetcel was eager to listen to him recount his legends. But the old man could do nothing more than murmur faintly, “The Feathered Serpent”…and say nothing more.

Nodding his head, the old native smiled as he looked at the objects. He seemed particularly amused by the little turtle, which was perfectly symmetrical. What was it about the turtle that brought such a glow to his eye? Who will ever know what was going on in his head? He said nothing.

In the silence, Ruetcel began to dream, lost in history: he thought about this old man’s father’s father, and what his own grandfather might have told him when he took him, his grandson, on his canoe to go fishing on the lake, or on the mountain to sow seed with a planting stick after the first rainfall. Then, as now, they cultivated the forest, which they cleared with machetes before burning. On the volcano slopes, the fringe of burn-off formed a ring of light, which could be seen from afar at night. Meanwhile the men kept watch over their land, so that the fire would not spread to their dwellings. The curtain of flames rose up, like a crown of fire they had made and placed on the mountain before the coming of the storms and the planting rites. As for the bean crop, that would come later, and they would not use fire: they would simply throw fistfuls of seed into the humid, fallow brush for it to sprout on the surface of the humus, then return two months later to harvest the ripe, half-wild pods.

Male corn, son of the goddess of maize Xilonen, son of fire, born from slashing and burning. And female bean, daughter of water, born from slashing and mulching. The corn came up out of the ashes of the burn-off, and the bean out of the damp of the compost. It had been that way long before the Spanish arrived with their sailing ships, dressed in metal, brandishing a cross, searching high and low for gold, and spitting fire from their fingertips.

A moment passed. Each of them was pursuing his own dream. The old native heaved a sigh, then looked at Ruetcel with that smile the peasants of the island have when there is a lull in the conversation and an angel passes by. Perhaps all he had to tell him was there in that silent smile.

The conversation started up again. Rainfall had been scarce. But it would come: the new moon was approaching. “It looks like rain,” said the old man. Then he turned to his visitor to ask him what he knew about the island. Ruetcel had decided to climb Concepción, he said. The native shook his head. Only a very few, he said, had ever dared to make the ascent. “And tell me, what about the Charco Verde? Did you visit that place?” he asked.

“No idea what this Charco Verde is,” answered Ruetcel.

“You have to go there,” said the old man. “Don’t miss it. It’s a beautiful little pond, a kind of lagoon at the foot of Concepción, on the shores of the lake. When you go, observe very carefully. The color of the water changes. In the afternoon, it is green. In the morning, crystal-clear with golden highlights. And at night, sometimes, you can see shining glimmers. Fireballs. It’s the spell.”

“Really?”

“You have to go,” insisted the old man. “You’ll take him there, won’t you?” he said to Angel. Then he turned toward Ruetcel, his brow knitted: “But, be sure you don’t go in the water!”

“Why shouldn’t I go in the water?” asked Ruetcel, while Angel laughed.

“Beware,” said the old man. “Those who go in the water never return. It’s the spell.”

Ruetcel listened, incredulous.

“You might not believe me, but that’s how it is,” the old man said. “The frogs, the oxen, the toads, and the turtles that you will see around the Charco Verde were once people like you and me. And then the spell was cast on them.”

On their way home, Ruetcel asked Angel for more details about the story of this spell. “The Charco Verde is some sort of a magic pond,” Angel explained. “It got its name from the color of its waters. They really look as if they had been colored with green paint. A proliferation of microscopic algae, the biologists had declared after their visit. When you put your hand in, it would disappear into the dark water, but your hand wasn’t dirty or green when you pulled it out: just wet, as if the water were clear.”

Legend had it that this Charco was the dwelling place of a devil called Chico Largo. This demon lived under the water, in a palace of pure gold. Three acolyte spirits kept him company: el Lagarto de Oro (“The Gold Crocodile”), Mama Bucha (Chico Largo’s own mother), and el Cristo Coto (“The Armless Christ”), whose shoulder stumps were hung with gold pendants…Chico Largo was known and feared far and wide. People came from faraway places for his advice. Pilgrims, of a sort. He bought people. You could sell your soul to him. Many had done so. Those who signed a pact with him obtained love, fortune, and glory, they said. But the contract stipulated the day and time and also the modalities of their deaths. On a chosen day, at a specific time, each was turned into an animal. And Chico Largo took possession of their souls to deliver them up to Satan. On the shores of the pond lived a sorcerer, a brujo. He was the one to go to. He began the preliminaries with Chico Largo, conducted the initial negotiations on behalf of the visitors. At the end of the deal, to conclude the pact, the pilgrim would sink a hawk’s feather into his veins and sign the contract in his own blood.

Such were the legend and the charms of the Charco Verde, a lovely lagoon whose sleeping waters mirrored the sky, at the foot of volcano Concepción. The islanders were generally afraid to go near it, and they tended to avoid it. During Holy Week, however, probably thanks to Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection, it was the custom to go there for a walk with the whole family without being frightened. At siesta time the Lagarto de Oro would come out of the water to take the sun. Those who dared to go nearer could see him lying there, immobile on the beach, shining in all his golden splendor.

Angel informed Ruetcel that they were just a stone’s throw from the Charco and made the suggestion, which Ruetcel quickly accepted, to go visit it without further ado. Angel walked slowly, saying nothing. They came upon the lagoon at the edge of a wood, below the road: terraced pastures curved toward the pool of water, like the tiered seats of a natural amphitheater. Only a black beach separated the pond from Lake Cocibolca. The contrast between its emerald green and the blue-gray waters of the lake was stunning. A hill rose up behind, covered by a net of creepers, where flowering trees pierced through here and there. Rising out of the beach, three coconut trees stretched toward the sky. A herd of white cattle was grazing in the prairies, which continued up to the very shores of the pond. There, among the rushes, stayed several white egrets, perfectly immobile, near orange trees and weeping willows. Hawks circled above in a cloudless sky, which stretched all the way to the horizon to meet the lake. A perfect, an immaculate silence filled the air. All around and as far as the eye could see lay Lake Cocibolca.

Suddenly a frightening noise came from the hillside woods, like roaring. Wild beasts? In a low voice, Angel reassured his friend, “Don’t worry, just a couple of howling monkeys.”

Over the water of the lake, from time to time, glided kingfishers, hummingbirds, parrots. A flock of ducks flew off toward a small island.

“What you see there is the Isle of Love,” Angel said .

Then, without a word, he pointed to the shore of the Charco. Something was moving, seemed to be trying to come out…was actually coming out…was making its way through the reeds. Yes, it was the right time, “Every day !,” said Angel. There, pulling itself up out of the water, was the mythical Lagarto de Oro. The huge crocodile moved forward a few yards on the beach then remained immobile on a slab of basalt, to bask in the early afternoon sun.

On their way back to the village, Angel and Ruetcel met up with a peasant, who walked along with them. He was extremely loquacious: Ruetcel couldn’t help asking him if he knew the legend of the Charco Verde.

“And how!” said the man, laughing. “Listen! My grandfather!” he shouted out like someone who was sure of what he was about to say. “Now, he was a man who liked his drink. A bit of a roamer, and when he was drunk…no telling where he’d show up! He used to go off across the countryside, walking for miles. We’d have to go looking for him, and then fetch him and bring him back home. Whenever he got really drunk, just before passing out, he’d cuss out the whole wide world, and every time without fail, howling at the top of his lungs, he’d threaten the Charco Verde. He’d say he wasn’t afraid, put his arms up in the air and holler, ’Chico Largo, son of a bitch! Cristo Coto, son of a Goddamned bitch! And, Mama Bucha, you fucking whore of a green-balled monk! You think I’m afraid of you, don’t you?’

“Well,” continued the peasant, “one day he came home on his own, never seen anything like it before. He was as white as a sheet. No more drinking, never touched the stuff again. You know what happened to him? You’ll never guess, not in a million years. He’d gotten the notion to go looking for crabs around the Charco Verde. There he was on the shore, bending over the rocks, when all of a sudden, he saw this crab coming out from under one of them. He caught it, but the critter slipped out of his hand and fell in the water. He stuck his hand in and…he felt another hand! Yes, sir, under the water, another hand, from the bottom of the pond, that grabbed his hand, and tried to pull him, my grandfather, into the Charco Verde. Santíssima Virgen! How he must’ve hollered!”

Ruetcel was getting close to the gate of hell.

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