The Devil's Clerk

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IV

—¿Tiempo, dónde estamos tú y yo, yo que vivo en ti y
tú que no existes?

Alfonso Cortés

Several days went by. This whole thing was beginning to get on his nerves. He went from being amazed by the spontaneity and imagination of the islanders to feeling irritated and discontented. The discrepancies from one person to another had him completely muddled. He reckoned that at the root of this proliferation of variations there must be some ancient indigenous tale that had been preserved through oral tradition. The legend of the Charco Verde must be linked to some local myth, he surmised. The strange magic of the site lent itself. It was this myth that intrigued him, and he wanted to find it in its original Nahuatl form, free of any romanticized deformations. He knew that the Nahuatl was the language of an ethnic group spread over Central America, the Nahua.

His training in statistical methodology brought him to the conclusion that the repetition of one single version, or perhaps even two very similar versions…in short, that by crosschecking coincidences and overlaps, he might find a lead. He was attentive, on the lookout for the slightest clue.

Oh, if only he would hear the same story twice! But he lost his way in a labyrinth of snakes, cattle, black horses, toads, turtles, hawks, corpses, the Hair of the Virgin, of Golden Crocodiles and fresh cheese, armless Christs with golden epaulettes, of Chico Largos and Mama Buchas.

He heard twenty, a hundred, a thousand variations: the overlaps never lasted long, two versions never coincided. What was worse, the same person questioned twice never told the same story. His mind floundered in the confusion. He began to wonder if he was losing his senses. The legend branched out indefinitely, opening up as it did so an infinite number of new possibilities.

He was fascinated by this legend. He wanted to meet don Eugenio: that man, at least, would be able to tell him about Chico Largo and the Charco Verde. He would help him get to the root, to find the origin of the legend.. But how could he approach don Eugenio? He couldn’t help feeling apprehensive, without admitting it to himself, as well as curious at the thought of such a meeting. He was the kind of people who derides superstitions and religions and considers them as “upper horizons of ignorance”, as a Zen proverb says. But he was fascinated and attracted, and his apprehension grew proportionately with the extent of don Eugenio’s renown and the dimensions of the legend. He longed for the moment of an encounter, knowing that it would come, inevitably. Chance, one day, arranged it for him.

While he sometimes used the motorcycle, he generally went around on foot, taking advantage of the passing trucks full of bananas or watermelons to bring him closer to his destination. It was while he was riding in the back of one of these that the long-awaited event occurred. The truck came to a halt in front of the school to pick up a group of kids, who sat down where they could, like himself, astride the watermelons. He noticed that one of the schoolboys was called the small Devil, el Diablito, by his classmates. He inquired about the origin of this nickname, and he was told, amid bursts of laughter, that the Diablito was none other than the son of Chico Largo himself. Don Eugenio’s son. At Ruetcel’s inquisitive look, the boy nodded. But his real name was Oswaldo.

He told Oswaldo that he wanted to meet his father. “I can take you to him, if you like,” the boy said. At the next stop, they got off together, jumping down from the truck bed. When they’d gone through the gate, Oswaldo realized that his father was absent. “He’s out. But have a seat; he won’t be long.” He pointed to one of the rocking chairs on the patio, then disappeared.

Ruetcel was alone. Several minutes passed. He sat rocking in his chair. He took out a pack of cigarettes, put one between his lips without lighting it. The place was calm. At the corner of the house, he could see a small yard, poorly kept, and a rose garden. He lit his cigarette. In front of him, a hibiscus bush. A hummingbird. Its staccato flight, then immobile in front of a red flower. Behind him, the cone of Concepción, the power of nature. The last sun rays on its basalt black, mauve, purple.

Don Eugenio entered, leaning on a cane. Ruetcel immediately rose to his feet.

“Good evening, sir. My name is Ruetcel. I wanted to meet you.”

“Fine, fine! Delighted,” said don Eugenio with a smile. “What a surprise! But, why? What can I do for you?”

Ruetcel looked for his words. He was doing a research about energy on Ometepe and was interested in tobacco drying. He had been told that don Eugenio was a man of great experience and would be able to help him.

“Whatever is within my modest means, much obliged! Please, have a seat! Would you like something to drink? Tea? Fruit juice?”

“A cup of tea.”

“Esmeralda!” cried don Eugenio in the direction of a room, which might have been the kitchen. “Esmeralda!”

It was difficult to tell his age. White hair, brushed-back. Green-tinted bifocals hid his eyes. A clean face, clear complexion with a few shallow wrinkles. A small, gray moustache, narrow and thin, neatly trimmed. No one answered his call.

“Esmeralda!” he repeated in a loud voice. Then turning to Ruetcel, as if to an old friend, he said, “What a house! No one’s ever around when you need them.”

He stood up and limped off as Ruetcel watched him. He was a small man, dressed with an old-fashioned elegance: a white shirt, heavily starched, with long sleeves, black, pleated trousers with cuffs, and polished brown-leather shoes. He returned, leaning heavily on his cane.

“Forgive me.” He smiled, seating himself. “Go on, please!”

Ruetcel had heard that don Eugenio was a tabacalero, and one of the largest landowners on the island. That was true, Eugenio admitted.

“But there’s no need to exaggerate!” he added.

“If you have a moment to spare me,” said Ruetcel, “maybe you could tell me a bit about the problems of deforestation and tobacco? But as a start, perhaps you could begin by telling me something about yourself and your farm, your hacienda?”

Don Eugenio listened attentively. When Ruetcel had finished, he remained silent several moments longer, still in the same pose of the attentive listener. Then he removed his glasses. Ruetcel tried to look him in the eye, but to no avail. With his head down, don Eugenio slowly pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. When he did finally raise his eyes to look at his guest, they were of an intense black, almost crossed. He set about cleaning his lenses, holding them to the light to see that they were spotless, and then put them carefully back in place.

“My lenses are tinted, on account of my sensitive eyes,” he explained. “The sun is bad for them, any strong light in general. My ophthalmologist recommended I choose green.”

He expressed himself with ease and in a vocabulary that Ruetcel had rarely heard during his conversations with the farmers of the area: “ophthalmologist…”

“I’m no spring chicken anymore, my friend, but I don’t look all that bad for my age. I’m going on eighty; that’s a fair piece, isn’t it? And I’ve lived on this island for over fifty years.”

When he had first settled there, there were no roads, no cars, no electricity or running water, he explained. Not to mention fertilizers or tractors of course. Only machetes, planting sticks. The women used to wear almost nothing, some went around with breasts uncovered. It was a virgin place then—“Dark,” he said—and the inhabitants were of a crass ignorance. Malaria was rampant, and infant mortality extremely high. At the beginning he had practiced medicine. Injections, aspirin, quinine, vaccination…He had obtained some fairly good results, and gained the villagers’ respect.

He had taken up farming. The land was fertile.

“Naturally, with those volcanoes…”

It was he who had brought progress to the island. Tobacco, the first tractor, fertilizers. Little by little, through sheer hard work, he had become successful. This was proof: his magnificent hacienda, La Soledad.

“Fifty years…how fast time goes, doesn’t it? Listen! The other day, the priest came for a visit. He’s a friend. He was sitting right where you are now, and we were talking about age. He visits often, on account of my rose garden. Did you know that I have a superb rose garden? Around back. You can see a bit of it from here. He enjoys sitting there, this priest, for a while, in the afternoon, alone. Sometimes he takes a book out of his pocket and reads it as he walks up and down the rows, between the roses. His breviary.”

He expressed himself calmly. Choosing his words. Just as Ruetcel would come to know him: one of those men who are capable of captivating their audience for hours, never losing their train of thought, not even for an instant.

“You know what a breviary is, don’t you? That book priests have to read every day. When he comes here for a visit, he retreats to the rose garden for a moment, and then we meet here on the patio to talk awhile and pass the time. The other day, as I was saying, he was sitting there, in your seat, and we were trying to calculate…he’s Spanish, sixty years old. I think he was sent here to the island to retire: he’s at the end of his career. This is a peaceful place, this island. Never a murder, no crime, and up until this “revolution,” no theft. If I were a priest, I wouldn’t mind spending my retirement here at all. Anyway, we were calculating. Him, sixty years. And me, going on eighty. Compared to me, he’s a just a kid! He told me, ’My compliments. You’ve been around the sun eighty times and, you still have the reputation of being, if you’ll excuse the expression, a real stallion!” I asked him if he knew how far that was, in miles, eighty times around the sun. He didn’t know. Do you? Do you know how far that is? Over forty thousand million miles! Can you imagine? But that’s not what you want to know about…”

Ruetcel hung on his every word. Esmeralda brought tea.

Two hours, three hours, four hours went by. It was pitch black outside. Don Eugenio rarely let his visitor get to the end of his question. There was no need to ask questions anyway to have the pleasure of listening to him. Why was he so forthcoming with Ruetcel about these stories? Maybe he was bored, lonely, and happy to meet an educated person? With small phrases, one stroke after another, in a stream of words broken here and there by long or short silences, at times raising his voice, at others murmuring faintly, quickening his delivery, miming situations, characters and their dialogues with an impressive register of attitudes and voices, tapping his finger or beating his fist on the wooden table to accentuate certain phrases, he offered his guest a fantastic saga of the island and its inhabitants.

He used the tone of the old wise man, at times slightly fatigued, speaking gravely, who is accustomed to being listened to and who knows the weight of words. He knew how to charm his listeners with well-told anecdotes and to startle them with an oddity or unexpected turn of events, and he often ended his sentences with a measured pause, sometimes getting the story moving again with a terrible “No, that’s a lie!” followed by some rectification that would change the entire course of the story.

He went on talking in the darkness. There was nothing but his voice, that fascinating voice:

“What people won’t say! It’s amazing sometimes…Such nonsense! People don’t know what they’re talking about…There’s a proverb: ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’ Right? But just the same, all in all, people don’t know what they’re talking about. For instance, on my property, there’s a little pond. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it. The Charco Verde. They call it that because it is really green. But sometimes it changes color. It depends on the sky. Well, some people say that…what they won’t come up with! They say that at the bottom of this Charco Verde lives a demon. That’s right, a demon! Chico Largo! That’s his name. There’s this whole legend…Well, people claim that I work for this Chico Largo, that I’ve sold my soul to him! And who knows what other nonsense? Can you imagine that? If you ask me, I think it’s amusing. But there’s a bunch of people around here. They believe it! And I’ve seen a load of fools file through here,…coming to ‘sell themselves,’ as they say. Yes, to sell themselves, sir! And they come to me for advice. Me! What do I know about those things? You and I…who know…we can laugh about it, can’t we?

“Now, I’ve got a friend, an educated man. His name is Carlos Paga. It was…because he’s dead, now. They gave him a grand funeral! The government, he was one of their friends, he was an important person. He’d received awards in Argentina, Mexico, Spain, Cuba, and who knows where else! Even in the USA, I was told. He was very intelligent. He was ugly! So ugly! Very pleasant. And he was always very kind to me. Well, he was interested in archeology; we did a lot of excavating together, on the hacienda and all over the island. We would find statuettes, funeral urns, small idols, ceramics. ’Luna,’ as they’re called. So I used to tell him all sorts of stories about Ometepe…He simply loved all of that. One day we were here on the patio, having a drink. I told him about the Charco Verde and Chico Largo. It fascinated him. He was excited.

“‘Don Eugenio, my friend!’ he said vibrantly to me. ‘My friend, how is it that you have written nothing about all of this so far?’

“‘My dear friend,’ I replied, ‘I don’t have your brains, and even less, your talent. I’m no writer. But I do have a book here, all the same…Yes, a notebook where I keep a record of all the fools who come to sell themselves.’

“‘What?’

“‘A notebook, yes. You heard me well.’

“‘Let me see it,’ he said. ’Let me see that right now! I must see it. Unbelievable. You keep a record of it all? I must see it!’

“The excavating, the urns, the Luna ceramics, and even Ometepe were no longer of any interest. He thought of nothing but the book, wanted to hear of nothing else. Well, in the end I let him see it.

“‘My friend, my friend Eugenio, my dear friend,’ he said to me scratching his head after he’d skimmed through it. My friend, what you have here, this book, if I ask you to lend it to me, you won’t lend it to me. And if I ask you to sell it to me, you won’t sell it. So, I’ll have to steal it from you!’

“‘That’s impossible. I won’t let go of it. And what do you want it for?’

“‘It was for his work,’ he explained. He kept insisting; he wouldn’t give up. Stubborn as a mule. In the end, of course, I gave in. He needed it: I gave it to him.

“‘I promise to return it to you,’ he assured me. ‘Within two weeks at the latest. You have my word.’

“And he took it away. Two weeks later, he was dead. Yes, sir! Dead!…During his vacation. A heart attack. It was in the papers. I went to the funeral service: magnificent. In the cathedral in Granada. There was the bishop, ministers. Grand, that funeral. And my book? How was I to get it back? I called on the family, asked his wife and friends to look for it, in his office, his things. Nothing. It was never found. Now, listen, because of all this, I write another one. A new one, bit by bit, whenever I have visitors. I continue to keep a record, for my new clients. But there are fewer than before. Now I tell people: ’It is over; no one’s buying any more. This government has taxed us so much that we can no longer work. As soon as they get rid of all those administrative hassles, we’ll start doing business again with the Charco.’ Because, my dear Ruetcel, on every deal, I get a percentage, you know, a commission. At least, that’s what people say…”

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