The Devil's Clerk

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III

Faust: “Who then art thou?”

Mephistopheles: “Part of that power that still produceth good, whilst ever scheming evil.”

Goethe

Continuing his research on his own, Ruetcel was little by little becoming a familiar a face for the islanders. A stranger wandering up and down the countryside could hardly go unnoticed. Where does he come from? Who sent him? What does he want? Perhaps he’s a traveling salesman? What’s he trying to sell? What does he talk about? What does he do? Who does he work for? What does he want, to buy land? Does he work for the government? Has he been sent by his distant homeland? Or maybe he’s a scientist? One of those, what do they call them?…a sociologist? an ethnologist? an archeologist? a something-or-other-ologist? There were so many of them, these “something-ologists,” who made brief appearances on the island. Rumor had it that he was doing a survey. That he was studying the forests, energy problems…

He met primarily with the village elders, getting them to talk about farming, the activity of the volcanoes, the history of the forests. He found them by asking around in the general stores if, by any chance, there were any wise, old men who liked to tell stories. That is how he came to hear, more than once, about a certain don Eugenio. He was to learn many things about this man. The first was that he had “sold his soul to the devil.” Ruetcel had been amused by this bit of news. Other more serious details informed him that don Eugenio was a rich farmer, one of the biggest landowners on the island. Originally from the continent, he had started without a penny to his name. He had been successful: his farm was sumptuous. A thousand hectares of pasture land, a network of roads, corrals with basalt walls several yards thick, full of healthy livestock, the best breed. “La Soledad”—that was the name of the master house—had been built within proximity of the Charco Verde.

A large tobacco producer, don Eugenio owned no fewer than two dozen brick kilns for drying his crops. Through experimentation, teaching himself everything, he had become the most skillful tabacalero in the region. The Tobacco Company, a North American enterprise, which exported the country’s production to make cowboy cigarettes, had set up an office in Ometepe. Modern facilities, fully equipped with a generator for the air-conditioning, and sheet-metal hangars for sorting and inspecting the leaves. Without a doubt the most prestigious setup on the island. The company encouraged farmers to follow don Eugenio’s example: it supplied them with seeds, credit and technical assistance, and promised to buy their crops. Local business was booming. A permanent team of experts and technicians were set up on location. An aerodrome had been built to facilitate their arrival and departure from and to the United States, a crude runway in the middle of a field, equipped with a single red-and-white-striped windsock, which intrigued the people in the area no end. Up until then, airplanes had been nothing more than strange, shiny dots in the sky, which were said to transport people. One day one of them landed on the island. A lineup of gringos disembarked and were given a red-carpet welcome by don Eugenio and the entire senior staff of the Association of Tobacco Producers of Ometepe, immaculately turned out. It was no small event for those times.

When Ruetcel asked around if don Eugenio might be able to give him useful information for his survey, the reply he received was as positive as it was stimulating: the man had a lot to say and would surely be happy to talk. Ruetcel pictured some sort of tropical gentleman farmer. From then on he paid more attention to what people said about Eugenio. He noticed that whenever he mentioned don Eugenio’s name, the first reaction of whomever he was speaking to was to step back, exclaiming, “Oh, el diablo!”

El diablo?” he would inquire.

“Yes, that’s what they call him around here. Just a lot of stories. It’s because of the Charco Verde.”

Or sometimes people would say, “Oh! Chico Largo!” and add things like, “Now, there’s a shifty character”…and other unflattering asides about the man. But Ruetcel paid no attention to such moments, for in the little microcosm of this island where everybody knew one another and where there was no shortage of ill feelings, he had vowed to ignore the gossip and avoid getting involved in the local quarrels, which might perturb his work.

And in any case, as a kind of compensation, or out of sincerity—perhaps fear, or even fairness, it was difficult to tell—his interlocutors would always throw in some kind words for don Eugenio. Married three times, twenty children; he was hale and hearty. He was on good terms with his former wives; they had everything they needed. He was a gentleman, a caballero. He was well-respected, hard-working, ran his farm well. He was cultivated, obliging. Well-off but never forgetting the welfare of those around him. In short, he was a good man. There were stories about him, but that was nothing but gossip.

Ruetcel heard similar things from the wide variety of people with very different social backgrounds he had the occasion to encounter: government officials, village shopkeepers, farmhands, lumberjacks, peasants at the cooperative, nurses at the hospital, technicians of the agricultural reform. Even the government representative, who was in charge of the revolutionary destinies of the island, had spoken respectfully of don Eugenio.

All those who met with him had a different version of the Charco Verde story to tell: some close relative had been put under a spell, turned into a monkey, a turtle, or a turkey. Someone suspected So-and-So of having signed a pact, because he’d suddenly and unexplainably struck it rich. Someone else had run into don Eugenio as he pranced his horse through the village streets on the night of the full moon, dressed in shining armor like don Quixote…

A neighbor had attended the wake of one of the village people who, as the rumor went, had sold his soul to the Charco Verde. At the stroke of midnight, three horsemen with wild black hair appeared, causing the dogs to bark, the chickens to sing, and the pigs to dance. The four candles illuminating the corpse were suddenly extinguished, blown out by a draft, and in the midst of an infernal noise, the visitors were heard dismounting. Then when someone had at last lighted another candle, the corpse was gone. Chico Largo had absconded with the deceased; his time had come.

A herd was grazing across the grasslands that sloped down toward the shores of the Charco Verde—a herd that belonged to don Eugenio. Some of the villagers claimed that these animals were in reality people who had signed the pact, who had sold their souls and whose fate was to be turned into cattle. The herd, it was said, was Chico Largo’s way of giving thanks to don Eugenio for services rendered. There was proof: whenever one of the steers was being driven to the slaughterhouse, you could hear it bellowing and moaning, and its plea had all the desperation of a human voice, to the point that people were frightened: it was someone’s throat they were cutting. More proof? Once, in a cow’s jaws, hadn’t they found a golden molar? How had it gotten there, that tooth? Unless it was because that animal had been someone like you or me?

Ruetcel was now aware of the Charco Verde’s importance for the local people. And now that he was hunting down information about it, new elements and stories seemed to come pouring in, under the most astonishing circumstances. One of the peasant women who grew her beans and tomatoes near the Charco told him an edifying story about a snake. Between the pond and Lake Cocibolca, she said, there was a small stream with a current that flowed alternately from one to the other, depending on the season, on account of the rains and the water level of the lake. And there was a huge snake that lived in this stream. To give Ruetcel a better idea of its size, she opened her arms wide, looked at one hand then the other, raised her eyes to the horizon, and explained that this creature was at least as long as the shore that linked the two volcanoes of the island. A shore that measured no less than two miles. Well, continued the woman, don Eugenio’s cattle went often to the stream to drink, she said, but hardly a week went by where one wasn’t found dead, suffocated, its bones crushed by this monstrous snake, which was a “boa constrictor” or something of the like, she’d been told. Every week! Wasn’t that awful? A priest from the continent who used to live on the island decided one day to put an end to the problem and rid Ometepe of this plague. “A holy man, that priest…,” she said. With the Hair of the Virgin, he made a trap, a kind of snare. One night he found a hiding place at the mouth of the stream, waiting for the monster to come. The Holy Hair of Mary had cut the reptile’s head clean off.

There was no end to such stories. They were simply mushrooming, proliferating, growing in variety and in extravagance.

According to the woman who ran the boardinghouse where Ruetcel had taken up lodgings, the basalt stones at the Charco granted special favors to the naive women who went there to swim. “My own cousin, for instance,” she said. This cousin of hers was a poor, old woman. One day when she had gone to the pond at dawn to take a swim, she felt something under her feet as she entered the water, like soft spheres. They were enormous balls of fresh cheese, which covered the bottom of the pond. As she was loading them into her bag to carry them back home, she heard a low voice, which filled the air: “Hold your tongue! Never tell anyone where you got this cheese! Never say a word about what happened here today!” For an entire week she sold her cheese at the market, telling anyone who inquired that she had made it herself. No one knew where she obtained the milk to make it. A neighbor suspected her of stealing it from her cows while they grazed in the fields, and she decided to follow her one morning to see what she was up to. Hiding behind a tree, she watched the poor, old woman undress, bathe in the Charco, brush her hair, gather the balls of cheese, and fill her bags. From that day on, the neighbor told the story triumphantly to anyone in the village who would listen.

She raised such a fuss that the elders council and the revolution defense committee called the cheese seller in and asked her outright: Was it the devil who made her goods? Pressed to tell the truth, terrified by the charges brought against her, she finally confessed, in tears, that she feared “the voice of the Charco Verde.” She recounted the whole story of what had happened to her. Her sincerity and honesty moved all those present. She was granted a pardon. This was all gospel truth, claimed Ruetcel’s landlady. “All you have to do is ask around,” she said. “There’s even a book; yes, there’s a book where it’s all written down.”

Her son had taken a liking to their host. He was just barely eight years old, and they often talked in the evenings after work. He had his own vision of the famous stones. He didn’t give a hoot about the cheese. What intrigued him was the fantastic Lagarto de Oro. He had seen it—with his very own eyes—basking in the sun, on Easter Sunday when his parents had taken him to the Charco. “And why is this crocodile golden?” Ruetcel had asked.

“Because he eats the stones in the Charco. Why else?” the little boy had replied. “Stones of pure gold! As big as melons! They are covering the bottom of the magic pond!”

Ruetcel’s work took him up and down the countryside. Transport was scarce. A few automobiles, a handful of trucks, a bus that was always breaking down. For family outings and the harvest season, the farmers, if they were rich, used heavy wagons on wooden wheels rimmed with iron, identical to those the Spanish had brought into the country after their conquests four centuries earlier. Most often, people went around on horseback or with mules. They had also trained the steer to be mounted, using a rope slipped through the ring in his muzzle to guide them…There were a couple motorbikes on the island, too. The technicians at the office of the agrarian reform owned a small one that raised a cloud of dust as it passed, leaving young boys and girls dreaming in its wake. Ruetcel borrowed that bike from time to time, when his research took him long distances. During these excursions, he was able to see for himself, many times over, that the aura of the legend went beyond the shores of the Charco Verde and the limits of the nearby villages: its realm was spread throughout the entire island.

One day, for instance, he came upon a solidified lava flow that was obstructing the road, which had not been cleared since the last volcanic eruption years before. It was impossible for him to cross it with his motorbike. He was about to turn back when three men showed up on their way back from the fields. They willingly agreed to give him a hand. Carrying the vehicle from rock to rock, on their backs or even at arm’s length, they managed to get over the obstacle in two hours’ time, covered in bruises and sweat. A little while later, preceded by a joyous bunch of kids who had never seen a motorbike before, he entered the courtyard of a nearby cooperative. The president gave him a warm welcome, but said that he was astounded. He had lived fifty years without ever having heard of a mule that was willing to cross that lava flow. He asked Ruetcel: “And how did you manage to cross it with a bike? Such a feat!” Ruetcel replied that it hadn’t been easy, and that perhaps it had been thanks to the help of Chico Largo. Instead of laughing, the man was suddenly dumbstruck, in a state of agitation that bordered on panic. Leading the others away with him, he seized the first pretext to be off and leave Ruetcel in contemplation.

After nearly three weeks on Ometepe, Ruetcel was forced to acknowledge that there was no one on the island—with no fewer than twenty thousand inhabitants—no one who was not aware of the legend of the Charco Verde and Chico Largo. It was a living myth. The extent of its power and ramifications was unfathomable.

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