The Devil's Clerk

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V

“But, what is this business?” Ruetcel asked. “What do you buy? What do you write in this book?”

“Well, whatever the fool is telling me,” replied don Eugenio. “What he’s selling, what he wants to sell me, you see? While he’s talking, I write: his name, Mr. So-and-So, his age, born in such-and-such a place. Dark skin, or mulatto. His profession, where he comes from, how intelligent he seems to be. And of course what he wants, what he’s asking for…

“Would you believe that one day there came a man from Costa Rica? Can you imagine! People come from abroad. It’s incredible. This tiny little Charco Verde…Right! This guy came from a village south of the town Liberia…what was the name of that little place again? I don’t remember anymore. Anyway, here came this man with his fingers covered in rings, gold rings, a dazzling sight. He presented himself at the gate.

“‘Don Eugenio?’ he asked.

“I was sitting on this very patio, doing my bookkeeping, getting the payroll ready for my peons, just like every Saturday.

“’Yes, señor. Come in, please. How may I be of service?’

“‘Well,’ he said. ‘I come from such-and-such a place. My name in Mr. So-and-So. I would like to discuss a highly confidential matter with you.’

“‘My word,’ I told him. ‘If it’s privacy you need, we are alone. We can talk freely, right where we are.’

“‘But no one must ever know!’

“‘No, no, no, you needn’t worry. Whatever is said here is sacred. Strictly confidential. See: there is nobody or nothing here except this book of accounts that I update every Saturday. What can I do for you?’

“‘You see, I used to practice a profession…,’ he said, and then kept silent.

“‘Which profession?’ I asked, and I could see that he was hesitating, beating around the bush, wringing his hands. ‘Relax,’ I told him. ‘We are alone; you can speak freely.’

“‘The same profession as you!’ he finally blurted out. ’But as a matter of fact, I really know nothing! I am a quack. A real crook. To make Mr. Sanchez fall in love with Miss Perez, I sell sugar ground down as fine as powder. I call it Love Potion. I ask for photographs, too, that I stick with pins…but it’s all nonsense! I know nothing. And now people are sure that I sell them nothing but hot air. Whereas you, they believe in you. Everyone that comes to see me back there, in Costa Rica, tells me of the wonders of the Charco Verde.’

“’Hombre?’ I said to him. ‘What do you want from me then?’

“‘You know what I want. I want you to sell me your magic powers.’

“’Hombre! That’s impossible! How can I give you my machete? How would I work, then? And you want me to sell you my wisdom, like that. I cannot. By no means.’

“‘Listen here!’ he said. ‘I’m going to make you a deal. We’ll become partners. Naturally, I’ll be selling articles that are authentic, legitimate, and good.’

“This man claimed that I was a sorcerer, you see, that I knew how to do such things…

“‘No,’ I told him. ‘You can’t mean it. How could such a deal be possible? It’s out of the question.’

“‘I’m going to open a bank account in Liberia. Once a month I’ll make a money transfer so that you have your share.’ That wheeler-and-dealer had an answer for everything.

“I told him that my decision was pending. That I had to talk it over with Chico Largo, Mama Bucha, and Cristo Coto. That I had neither the authorization nor the power to give away such magic secrets.

“Three months later, to the day, the man came back. On the patio, before me.

“‘What’s the outcome?’ he asked.

“I looked at him. ’Hombre!’ I said. ‘It’s only seeing you now that I remember you. I haven’t done anything.’

“‘Oh! And I’ve come all this way,’ he said reproachfully. ‘I even brought cash to close the deal.’

“’But no one asked you to! And no one here wants your money! As far as I know, I didn’t make any deal with you. I only told you that I was going to ‘look into it.’ Well, I forgot. Now I remember everything, yes. And I will do it. You can be sure of that.’

“‘I’ll leave you one hundred pesos so that you can send me the reply by telegram.’

“’No, no, no. Telegrams are not safe. The mailmen read telegrams; it’s dangerous. In a letter, I’ll let you know.”

“And off he went again. Like so many others. Do you know, my dear Ruetcel, that sometimes people also write to me? All this stuff is just incredible. Do you know, out West, a place called El Malpaisillo? A cotton-growing region. Just before harvest time, it looks like a field covered in snow. It’s beautiful, that blanket of white stretching as far as the eye can see. Well, I’ve gotten letters from there, from workers, a rain of letters; they’ve harassed me for months! And once there was even a young boy from that place who came here. He couldn’t have been more than twelve, that boy. He walked all the way from El Malpaisillo, a three-day trip. His mother was a day laborer there.”

Don Eugenio’s tone grew dramatic: “This kid had a letter in his hand from his mother. She had had thirteen children. Five had died; four were ill. She was asking me to state my conditions. She perfectly knew it was in exchange for her soul and that after a set number of years, the devil would take her away…”

Don Eugenio raised his voice, as if frightened. “I wonder. I wonder how people can believe in such things!”

Then, after a silence, he smiled a terrifying smile, and in hushed tones said, “But I’m guilty in the end, because I encourage them. I go along with them. I agree with them, for heaven’s sake, just for a laugh, to have a bit of fun…” And indeed he began to laugh.

“My wife has fits, on account of the Charco Verde. The missus is furious. Really! She blows her top. Because of my child, my little boy, the one who brought you here this evening. People call out to him in the street: “Look, there goes the little devil. Adios, diablito!”

Esmeralda came onto the patio to announce that she was going to bed. It was getting late. Ruetcel stood up to take leave. His host invited him to return whenever he wished: he would always be welcome.

The very next day, Ruetcel was back. Don Eugenio welcomed him with open arms. He was in great form, and his visitor did not have to wait long for new stories.

“Listen to this one! One day, as I was going home…”

That day, weary from a series of mishaps he’d encountered in his farming business, he came across one of those people who show up at his house for “private matters.” In the study, where he received him, don Eugenio had listened to his questions about the Charco Verde. Too many questions to his liking. The man was in his thirties. Lively, tanned, he was from a village in the North of the country, harsh and poor, where the rainy season was cold because of the altitude. Clothes were expensive, so was food. The man kept touching the top of his skull nervously, crossing and uncrossing his legs, scratching his ears. After a certain amount of pauses and hedging, he had finally inquired if he, don Eugenio, was really the one to see in order to sign a pact with Chico Largo. Apparently reassured by who knows what, he lowered his voice and dared to murmur that he wanted to sell his soul for five thousand pesos. His woman was twenty-four years old, and she had approved of his visit. They had seven children and were penniless.

“I beg of you, don Eugenio, present my case to this don Chico Largo.”

He also wanted to receive confirmation of the date of his death at least two weeks in advance, in order to make the necessary preparations.

“Certainly,” don Eugenio had replied curtly, while taking a few notes.

Distraught by the silence of the sorcerer he had traveled so far to visit, the man opened his mouth several times, but no words came out.

Don Eugenio sat watching him yawn like a carp, waiting for the same foolish questions that his guests invariably rattled off about delivering the money, signing the contract, guarantees, etc. His guest stood up suddenly, as white as a sheet, ran quickly toward the door, and rushed out of the room, leaving his hat behind. Taken by panic, he had fled without going through with his request. Don Eugenio still had that hat. No one had ever come to claim it.

Don Eugenio was still laughing about the poor man when Esmeralda brought in two cups of tea.

Amigo!” he said to Ruetcel. “There are so many stories about the Charco Verde. Hey, what about this one: once there was this…”

Once there was this smartly dressed gentleman who presented himself at the gate of the house. Esmeralda had showed him into the parlor to wait. She was impressed, because he seemed to be rich, but also puzzled, because he had asked her with an extreme courtesy if it was here, at La Soledad, that the “famous Magus don Eugenio of Ometepe” resided.

She went for don Eugenio, who was standing outside under the mango trees, surrounded by tobacco kilns, dividing the work up among his peons for the drying of the crops. He donned his straw hat, took up his cane good-naturedly, and went home to receive the man in his study. The man was in his forties, stocky, wearing a black, wide-brimmed, felt hat and a flowered shirt gathered at the waist. A fleece of black hair protruded from its collar. On his wrist he was wearing a gold bracelet, and numerous gold chains around his neck. He was at ease as he began to speak. “A big wig,” thought don Eugenio. His name was Clotario Adolfo Icasa Sanchez, and he came from Nueva Guinea, where he had been living for a couple of years.

“You do know Nueva Guinea, don’t you, don Eugenio?” he asked.

Don Eugenio had never been there, but he had heard of it quite often. This region was part of the jungle in the West of the country. A few years before the revolution, the government had declared it open for colonization and sent bulldozers to clear a road. The road, however, ended suddenly, for no apparent reason, in the middle of the marshes. Nevertheless, coming from all over the country, the settlers arrived. They were peasants with no land, peons hoping to find fortune, because the minister of agriculture had promised a piece of land to anyone who was willing to develop it. They had settled down, cutting away a clearing with machetes, building wooden huts so that the families who’d stayed behind could come join them. Life got off to a new start. The farms were christened with eloquent names: Nueva Esperanza, Nuevo Amanecer, Nueva Jerusalem. At the meeting of two roads, a gig village was born, where the harvest traffic passed in transit. Business was not long in thriving. This mushroom-town attracted a wide variety of adventurers who found fertile terrain for their talents: charlatans, speculators, swindlers, peddlers of miracle medicines, preachers from fanatic sects. In the midst of this inferno, the hotels in the towns prospered: they had become the headquarters of the charlatans and adventurers. There was a lot of gambling. Cards mostly.

However, the following year a hurricane passed by. A full week of terror, and then even forty more days of storms had then completely drowned the crops, carried away the homes, the cattle, destroyed the roads and swelled the rivers until they overflowed. Their thick, muddy waters carried lightening-struck trees, which floated downstream and were occasionally sucked into deep whirlpools. The bodies of donkeys floated along with the current, with hawks perched on their swollen bellies. In the aftermath of the blow, many settlers, completely ruined, lost heart. Some of them bid their land as stakes playing cards, to try their luck. Many a wish born with the opening of the road was swallowed up by these gambling dens.

In Nueva Guinea, Clotario Icasa was a professional gambler, he said. He had just lost a nine-hundred-acre ranch in a poker game, along with a herd of three hundred heads, and had many debts. He was offering to sell himself to don Eugenio for the sum of three million pesos—and he tabled a baptism certificate, which he presumed was required for this kind of deal. He was the father of a fifteen-year-old—here was his picture—who he was hoping to sell as well, for two million pesos, in order to raise five million: that was the amount he needed. From the drawer of his table, don Eugenio took out a piece of paper and a pen: this gesture seemed to please his guest. Sure of himself, he remembered that he had another deal to offer: “In Nueva Guinea, everyone is bankrupt,” he said. “Ready to sell out.” He proposed that he be entrusted with “some magic power” to become Charco Verde’s agent in the area. He was asking fifty-fifty.

Don Eugenio had adjusted his glasses, read over his notes. Then, coughing slightly to clear his throat, he had lifted his eyes toward the man.

Opening a “branch” of the Charco Verde in Nueva Guinea seemed tricky, he said. Naturally, the masters of the Charco Verde wanted to see their realm expand. They were concerned with helping those in need; it was even their deepest desire. But, because of the peculiar nature of their trade, Chico Largo, Mama Bucha, Lagarto de Oro, and Cristo Coto were highly selective in choosing their partners. Surely his visitor would not be surprised: the highest qualifications were required of people to run their “branches,” and it was only after a process of selection that Chico Largo singled out the applicants who had proven to be worthy, and with immaculate morals.

His visitor’s intentions were evidently sincere. He might even possess the qualities required of those in charge of the matters he was soliciting. But, as he could well understand, nothing could be done about his request for the moment. However, don Clotario’s first offer, the two souls for sale, seemed worthy of consideration. The profile of the applicants was likely to meet the Charco Verde’s criteria, and don Eugenio would willingly act in their favor. The financial conditions were slightly demanding, you see; five million pesos was a pretty penny! But, after all, perhaps it wasn’t all that unreasonable given the qualities of don Clotario. In short, don Eugenio would be pleased to submit the visitor’s request and promised to plead his cause. Naturally, his son’s baptism certificate would be required in order to conclude the matter. His photograph was not sufficient proof, for the Charco Verde, that the deal might be done.

Don Clotario announced that he wanted to sign for himself right away, and to come back later with his son’s certificate. As for his own contract, what should he do?

“Wait,” don Eugenio had replied with a smile, taking a calendar from his drawer. “It is only once a month, at full moon, at midnight, that the Masters of the Charco Verde meet to deliberate in the Grand Council.”

Don Clotario was impatient. When was the next Grand Council? Two weeks…

Don Eugenio’s story came to a stop at this point, as if something was forcing him to remain silent.

“And then?” asked Ruetcel. “Did he come back?”

“Two days later came the ‘revolution.’ A general uprising. The entire country was upside down. No, I never saw him again. Gone, vanished. He had made up his mind. He was supposed to come back. I guess something must’ve happened to him. You know, what with the revolution and all.”

His tone of voice changed. He was about to lose his reserve. He took a deep breath and said in a desperate voice, “This so-called ‘revolution’ has made a mess of things! A disaster! Just listen to this: One evening at eleven o’clock, six armed men in uniform burst into this house. With them was a Panamanian doctor I knew from sight, who worked at the hospital. He was a revolutionary, an internacionalista, as these kinds are called. His name was Puerto Dorado.

“This man began to call me names. It seemed I was the worst thing that had ever walked the earth, a monster, a freak of nature. He was like some prosecutor demanding the head of the defendant. In fact I felt like I was being court-martialed. Right here in my very own home. At eleven o’clock at night!

“He went on screaming about how I had two hundred rifles hidden in my yard, with twenty cases of ammunition. According to him, it was all buried in a hole, right here, wrapped in a big piece of black plastic, the kind of plastic I use for the tobacco plants in my nurseries.

“I asked him how he could prove such a thing: “‘Right away!’ he said. ‘We’ll prove it to you right now.’ And he sent one of his men to fetch a woman outside.

“‘I saw him!’ cried out this madwoman, who’d just arrived, pointing a finger at me.

“I should tell you. This woman, I knew her. She lives on my land, on a small island that belongs to me, just across from the Charco Verde.

“‘I saw him, with his peons,’ she cried. ‘In the moonlight, they were burying the guns in his rose garden. They wrapped them in that plastic they use in the tobacco nurseries. And as for the ammunition, there’s a carpenter in the village, he lives nearby, who built the wooden cases.’

“But that was not all. The shrew went on…The sky was falling in on me. From such bad luck, not even Chico Largo himself would be able to save me.

“‘Wait!’ I said to the Panamanian. ’Wait. I have to make a visit to the Charco Verde to ask for help.’

“‘What?’ the man screamed. ‘What did you say?’

“‘Nothing, nothing…’

“He turned toward the others, and pointing his finger at me: Did you hear that? Well! Compañeros! What do you think?’

“‘His goose is cooked,’ said the first.

“‘Cooked,’ said the second.

“‘Cooked,’ said the third.

“‘Cooked,’ said the fourth.

“’And you, compañero?’

“‘Cooked.’

“Then came the last one’s turn: ’This woman, I don’t believe what she says. I think she’s got a lot of nerve, all right. But I don’t think this here señor buried any two hundred rifles. He’d be risking his neck.’

“‘It’s simple enough,’ said Puerto Dorado. ‘Let’s take a look. We’ll find them.’

“‘Under one condition,’ I said. ‘I’m warning you: If you find nothing, not a single bullet, not one of those blasted rifles, then you have to pay me for the yard. That rose garden is worth the twenty years of hard work my wife has put into it. There’s a priest, from the village. You know him. He comes here often; he’s a friend. He likes to sit in the garden and gaze at the roses. He’s happy. We serve him something cold to drink. Every time, he congratulates us on our rose garden. My wife is very proud, you know…Well, once he said: “Twenty thousand pesos. This garden, with all the work your wife has put into it, is worth at least twenty thousand pesos.” There. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the price of the rose garden, as the priest said. So here are my conditions: if you don’t find any guns, any bullets, you must pay me that amount. Go ahead! Dig it up, the whole yard; destroy my rose garden! Turn it inside out. You can wake up my peons, and they will give you a hand if you want! Or else, go look for help in the village, knock on doors, even if it is midnight. Shovels, they’ll lend you shovels!’

“They calmed down. The Panamanian told me, ‘Tomorrow morning, at eight o’clock sharp, I will be waiting for you for an official interrogation. Come and see me at the hospital.’

“‘Very well,’ I replied softly.

“‘Tomorrow!’ he screamed.

“Suddenly he became furious. He grabbed me by the collar and shook me like a lemon tree. He took his American revolver from its holster, put his index finger through the trigger, and spun it around, like in the movies. I thought to myself, ‘Well, if he hits me, I’ll grab his revolver and shoot him, even if they will have to execute me afterward.’ He didn’t hit me, didn’t go that far. Neither did I. But he had managed to frighten me, you know, and he took immediate advantage of it.

“In reality they had come to see me with a precise idea in mind, business they wanted to take care of without further delay. Indeed, their aim was to steal from me part of my hacienda. That is how, that night, they made me sign a paper saying that I relinquished all my property rights to the island of Quiste. People also call it the Isle of Love…a nice little island that was all mine, just across from the Charco Verde, where that slanderous shrew lives. I don’t know what got into her, that poor woman. She must have thought that, by turning me in, the land would be hers. Or maybe that’s what they mean by agrarian reform? Maybe they had received orders from the boss of Ometepe’s agrarian reform, what’s his name, this…Angel? I do not know. In any case, they told me the island did not belong to me, that I had stolen it. And who knows what else? I got out my papers, the notary’s documents about La Soledad. The Isle of Love was part of it. I showed them the deeds, and they told me it was theft.

“‘That island belongs by right to this woman!’ screamed the Panamanian, out of his wits, his eyes bulging.

“In the end, I was forced to give in, you see, and I ended up signing the paper. Now that woman owns the Isle of Love, it seems. One hectare. It was almost three o’clock in the morning, and they had gotten what they wanted. They left, telling me to come to the hospital the next morning for a hearing about the rifles.

“They had already made up their minds that I was guilty; they were going to have me court-martialed, flown by helicopter to the capital, what do I know? What a story, my friend, what a story! It was death, death in person, that was awaiting me, and no one else. Well, I said to my wife, ‘Esmeralda, pack a small suitcase. I’m leaving. Immediately.’

“At three in the morning, I got into my jeep. Farther along, I stopped at the house of the owner of the Señora del Lago, the steamship that goes to the mainland every day. His name was Marlon Randall. I knocked on his door. ‘Don Marlon, open up!’

“‘Eugenio! What’s the matter?’ He let me in. I explained my problem, asked him for help.

“’Hombre, of course! Right away. Let’s go to the port. The Señora del Lago is there at the wharf; there is no one around. I’ll get you on board, will hide you in the hold.’

“And that is how I managed to leave the island the next morning. On the sly, a stowaway. It was so hot in there. Infernal!

“After the crossing, when I disembarked in the port of San Jorge, I heard, ‘Eugenio, what are you doing here?’ It was old friend Salvador. He was a member of the regional government. He had connections everywhere, you see. I embraced him, told him my story.

“’Hombre!’ he exclaimed. Darn! Let’s go see Paco right away.’

Paco was a military chief, a Commandante of his friends.

“‘What is it, Salvador?’ asked Paco.

“’A very delicate case with this señor.’

“‘Serious?’

“‘Yes, very serious.’

“‘Couldn’t it be taken care of tomorrow?’

“‘No. It would be too late; it’s got to be taken care of immediately.’

“’Well, let’s see, señor. What’s your problem?’

“I started to tell him…And Paco hit the table with his fist. With these very words, emphasizing each of them: ‘I’ve had just about enough of this troublemaker! Counting you, that makes the fourth time he’s mixed up in this kind of mess!’

“The telephone rang. The Commandante picked up the receiver, listened, then hung up. Told me he must go. In two hours he’d be back. He asked to his secretary to give me some paper and a pen, and then turned to me: ‘Write down everything you’ve told me. What you have yet to tell me, and what you have forgotten. A complete statement.’

“When he returned, he read the three full pages I had written and cried, ‘Holy Jesus! What a story! That rascal, I want him here in front of me, immediately, this very day.’

“He tried the telephone. No lines for Ometepe, impossible…Ordered his secretary to send a telegram. Dictated: ’Urgent. Panamanian compañero Puerto Dorado is to report urgently to the military headquarters in Rivas. Let him take the first boat.’

“The Panamanian got a real working over from the Commandante. He was expelled and sent back to his country. I have been told that Paco said to him: ‘We do not want people who are unworthy. You went to Ometepe to exercise the profession of doctor, not to get involved in the agrarian reform or military intelligence. You are a disgrace to our revolution!’ What I know is that this bastard made me lose my island and almost my life. But he paid for it. He stabbed himself….Go away! Come on, go away!”

With a scornful movement of the hand, don Eugenio kept saying, “Go away,” to the shadow of the internationalist, as if his memory had brought him back to life. After a while, he continued, “This revolution! A disaster, I tell you. Listen to this other one; it’s interesting. But maybe you’ve already heard it? The soldiers, the compas, who settled down next to the Charco, haven’t people told you? Your friend Angel? No? It’s no tall tale. This story is authentic, my friend.

“The revolution was no more than three months old, and they had just taken the Isle of Love away from me. I was sitting here, in this rocking chair. Ah! I had a broken arm. This one. An accident, coming back from the fields, in my jeep, I ran into a ditch. Some folks say I drive with my eyes closed. Can you imagine that? Well, my arm was in a cast. It must have been about ten o’clock in the morning when this carload of soldiers pulled up. One of them got out and rang at the gate.

“‘Are you don Eugenio?’

“’Si, compañero,” I replied. ‘What can I do for you?’

“’Compañero, don Cesar would like to speak with you.’”

“Another compa, an officer, got out of the car, crossed the threshold of the patio, and approached me.

“’Hmm, compañero?’ I said to him. ’What can I do for you?”

“‘Listen here!’ said this fellow.

And around he went, looking over my house…I started wondering, “What can this man want from me?” His brow knit, he went on inspecting.

“‘Listen here. I’m looking for billeting quarters. For fifty of my troops. And myself: that makes fifty-one. You’ve got a lot of room here. And several houses I believe.’

“‘Here? It’s impossible,’ I said. Work is in full swing. The tobacco is drying. Fire hazards.’

“’But there’s a new house on your hacienda,’ he said. ‘Isn’t there? We’ve been informed.’

“‘That’s precise.’

“‘We could set up base there.’

“‘Well, if you really insist, why not? You’re welcome to. But may I know the purpose for this base?’

“‘Military training. Allow us to train soldiers on your farm.’

“‘Are they new recruits?’

“‘No. They fought in the War of Liberation. But they are bad soldiers. They need technical training, which we’ll give them here.’

“‘Listen, I’m not really very fond of anything that has to do with the military. I’m an enemy of arms. I’m a man of peace, of work. Naturally, I kept a revolver, and a shotgun, for hunting, and a rifle, because they always come in handy. But the revolution confiscated them all. But in the end, I don’t mind. I kept those weapons here at home only out of habit.’

“‘Don’t worry; we won’t bother you.’

“To make a long story short, they set up base in the house that I’d just built a few yards away from the Charco Verde.” All of a sudden, don Eugenio’s voice became grave and resounding: “I think those guys must’ve smoked marijuana or something; there’s no other explanation for it. The next day, don Cesar, their leader, came to me and said, ’I have been told that you are an extremely humanitarian man, very honest.’I was listening to him talk, seeing him beat around the bush, get mixed up in what he was saying, and I thought, “This man’s going to ask me a favor.”

“‘We need food,’ he told me.

“‘Well, for goodness’ sake, we’ll give you some.’ I gave him a sack of rice, fifty pounds of beans, another fifty of corn, and stacks of plates, forks, and knives, pots and pans. It wasn’t complicated: they didn’t have a thing.

“‘How about a glass of milk?’ he dared to ask again.

“‘My pleasure. We’ll get that for you right away. Esmeralda! Bring a glass of milk for don Cesar!’

“‘It’s just that there’re fifty of us.’

“No more, no less. Fifteen gallons, that’s what he needed. And there you are. Well. So, two weeks later, you see, they were still there. They had set up an obstacle course, an entire military base. The villagers who passed by on their way to the lake to wash their laundry or fetch water would exclaim as they were going by, well within earshot: ’Well, take a look at that! Look at that load of fools that don Eugenio’s fixing to sell to the Charco!’ People went on making fun of them like that. At the beginning they didn’t understand. Then they started getting nervous, very nervous. And the heckling continued: ’Don Eugenio’s going to sell you! There’s no escaping now! At least a million pesos, that’s how much he’ll get from Chico Largo for fifty compas!’

“I, of course, knew nothing about this. I had no idea. It was only later that I heard the story. I was immobilized here, with my arm in a cast. One night, it must have been around ten o’clock, I was lying in bed. I usually listen to the radio in the evening. The BBC, Voice of America or Radio France Internationale: the radio is my obsession. News from all around the world, you know. Well, I was about to fall asleep…”

Don Eugenio’s voice was filled with pathos. He continued after a brief pause.

“I was about to fall asleep, when I heard a burst of gunfire. I mean an enormous blast! Then another! And another! And still others! A real shootout. It went on and on. Just imagine: fifty men shooting at everything in sight, emptying their cartridges, all at once. I said to myself, ’What’s happening? Some boatful of contras that has just landed near the Charco Verde?” It was a mess over there, I tell you, dangerous…I said to my wife, ‘Esmeralda, we should go take a look.’

“‘Not on your life,’ she said. ‘They’ll shoot us! Tomorrow I’ll go check it out.’

“And so, night passed. The next morning, Esmeralda went. She approached the house. The ground was littered with empty machine gun cartridges. She saw a group of compas and asked them what had happened the night before. The young man on guard duty had been drinking, it seems. He had gone to sit on the wall of a corral, on the lookout. In the moonlight he saw a huge man standing in front of a pole. Try to imagine, a man seventeen or eighteen yards tall, wearing a white shirt, phosphorescent ,lit up in the full moon. The sentry was sitting. He saw the phantom, let out a scream. He started swearing at it, insulting it! The ghost came closer. When it is about two yards off, the sentry shot a round from his machine gun. The bullets didn’t even faze the phantom. It grabbed the soldier by the shoulder, lifted him like a feather, hit him. The others came running from the house, yelling, and they started shooting in all directions, panicking, like a bunch of madmen.

“After the shooting, the troops set out to look for Chico Largo. They searched high and low, overturning mattresses, looking under beds. They searched near the corrals, in the woods, on the hillside. They patrolled around the Charco Verde until morning. They shot rounds into the pond. And at the hawks, too, so they said. And the vultures, wounded, kept on gliding, with garlands of bloody entrails…

“Well, now. Where was I? The soldiers were telling the story to my wife, and she saw nearby another soldier, the sentry himself, who was lying under a tree, lifeless, his hip and shoulder-bone shattered, and his forearm in shreds. They all gathered around, and don Cesar appeared and joined them. And you won’t believe what they say to don Cesar, right there in front of Esmeralda:

“‘Look here, boss. We’re getting out of here. We’re not staying another minute.’

“‘Out of the question. No one’s going anywhere,’ said don Cesar.

“’You can stay if you like. But not us; we’re getting out of here. Chico Largo’ll get us sooner or later. Everyone here says he wants to turn us into animals. That he’ll actually turn us into cattle, monkeys, toads.’

“My wife returned, told me what she’d seen and heard. I was sitting in this armchair, when at noon, don Cesar arrived. He stopped in the entryway, on the threshold.

“‘Don Eugenio,’ he said to me. ‘I’ve come to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Because you’ve been so generous with us, so hospitable. We are very grateful to you.’

“‘Don Cesar, what in the world is the matter? I say. Please, come in. Don’t stand there in the doorway.’

“‘No,’ he said. ‘Thank you, I’m in a hurry; we’re leaving.’

“‘Why are you going?’

“‘I’ve been given orders.’

“‘Orders! What kind of orders?’

“’No, hombre, I can’t tell you. They’re military orders. We’re leaving.’

“‘Please come in, don Cesar. Tell me. What’s the matter?’

“I got up. As soon as I was on my feet, he became frightened. The man was frightened. They had filled this man’s head with all these stories about the Charco. ‘Please, come in, don Cesar,’ I said, raising my voice. ‘For God’s sake, what are you afraid of?’

“From the doorway he threw me the keys to the new house, jumped into his jeep, and—whoosh!—fled. The other soldiers stopped three watermelon trucks on the road, piled in—weapons, baggage, and all—and reached the continent that same evening.”

Don Eugenio didn’t like communists, nor revolutions. He had used the ghost and the legend of Chico Largo to drive the compas off his land. But with all this, he had lost an island. Quiste Island, the Isle of Love. Ruetcel inquired, “This small island, that’s the one you can see from the Charco Verde, isn’t it?”

Don Eugenio found his inspiration once again. “Ah, you know it? Yes, of course, you must’ve seen it on your way past the Charco. It’s about a half a mile off. Ah! El Quiste! People also call it the Isle of Love because there’s a nice little legend. An old man from Urbaite, a long time ago, told it to me. He’s dead, now. His name was Socrates Atahual Dirianji. He was an admirable man; he knew how to decipher those petroglyphs they find all over the island. You know, those indigenous symbols, engraved in blocks of basalt. Well, this man used to say that Quiste is the island of love because it was there, before the conquest, that the tribe leaders—the caciques— got married. The princes and princesses of those times, the future brides and grooms, would cross the bay in canoes at sunset. Two priests of those times would be waiting for them, to conduct the ceremony. When they arrived, the priests would separate them, take them to opposite ends of the island, where two great fires were lit. Each priest took care of one of the future newlyweds in a reed hut, prepared them, gave them instructions. They cleansed themselves. The soon-to-be newlyweds were forbidden to see each other for three days and three nights.”

Don Eugenio laughed. “If the priests were there, it was to keep them away from each other, wasn’t it? Youth is impatient…But I keep babbling away. Maybe you’re thirsty? How would you like some watermelon? A sandía, as they’re called here? Ever since I started growing them on a large scale, everyone is doing the same. You’ll see, in a little while, at full harvest time. It’ll be a heck of a problem. Esmeralda!”

He yelled off in the direction of the kitchen. “Esmeralda! A watermelon! A ‘special’!”

“Here, have a taste of this, you’ll be amazed,” he said to Ruetcel as he handed him a slice of the fruit. Ruetcel’s lips puckered in surprise: there was a strawberry taste in his mouth. Don Eugenio burst into laughter.

“What do you think of that trick?” said Eugenio. “I take pride in producing the most extraordinary melons in Central America! I know how to make other flavors too: vanilla, raspberry, passion fruit. And I’ll tell you my secret! Two weeks before the watermelon is ripe, you set a glass jar, like a mason jar, on the ground behind it. You take the wick of a kerosene lamp, stick one end in the rump of the watermelon, and the other in the lid of the glass jar that you fill with strawberry or banana or vanilla extract. Once I made some with cod-liver oil, and I sent them to Managua, to the laboratory of the ministry of agrarian reform. For analysis. For a laugh.”

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