The Devil's Clerk

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VI

Ruetcel was surprised to find that solving the question of the origin of the Charco Verde legend had become the main purpose of his stay. This living myth gave all those around him a reason for being. There was enough there to write a book. Sometimes he dreamed about it. One day, when the harvest of watermelons had begun to peak, he stopped by Angel’s office to talk things over.

“What’s this mix-up you had with don Eugenio over the Quiste, the Isle of Love?” he asked him.

Angel explained what he knew. The entire lakeshore area of Lake Cocibolca had been national territory ever since a law was passed in 1945. Don Eugenio’s property deeds were not legal. Angel had sent for the old man several times in the hopes of reaching a settlement, since the agrarian reform and city hall had decided to grant user rights to a certain woman called doña Maria.

“Don Eugenio has a rather peculiar version of the story, you know,” said Ruetcel. “By the way, he also claims that a group of compas fled Ometepe because of Chico Largo.”

Angel got suddenly nervous but calmed down immediately after and also apologized: he was extremely busy because Ometepe, that was one of the granaries of the country, had begun importing beans and corn from the continent. He had just received a telegram from the minister himself demanding an explanation. The troops in the North fighting the Contra needed food, the capital city needed maize, and the country was counting on Ometepe to provide supplies.

“It’s because of those goddamn watermelons!” shouted Angel. “Apart from tobacco, that’s all you find on this island anymore. Watermelons. And who started it all? That great big son of a bitch don Eugenio. It wasn’t enough to cut down the island’s forest to dry his tobacco; now he’s set this plague of watermelons on us. Even the cooperatives and the beneficiaries of the agrarian reform grow nothing else. Have you seen those truckloads of buyers that roar up and down the island? They come all the way from Costa Rica, my friend! They buy watermelons at such a price that no one wants to grow corn anymore. Have you tried getting around recently? No more transport, hombre; the trucks won’t pick up hitchhikers. Have you been down to the port? Mountains of watermelons. The pontoons won’t hold out. The merchants fight among themselves to load their cargos, and they hire kids armed with sling-shots to guard them. Last night there was a full-fledged battle down there. Two casualties, I tell you, two kids in the hospital. And thousands of watermelons split-open and floating in the water around the pier. You know what, Ruetcel? I have just learned this: for the past week, merchants have been bribing the guardians in the port, and don Marlon, the owner of the boat. For each and every watermelon on board, the price of a passenger’s fare. The government delegate was forced to intervene so that the Señora del Lago would take a minimum number of passengers, and to limit the load, to avoid sinking. How does that make us look? The entire life of the island has been paralyzed. The country is at war, damn it. They want corn in Managua, hombre! Not sugar water. And they hold me accountable for that mess, hombre! So, please, don’t come to me with your stories of Charco Verde.”

Angel seemed depressed. It was with drawn eyes that he looked at Ruetcel again. “I got carried away; forgive me,” he said after a while. “Hombre, darn! I haven’t slept for the past two nights. But listen, you’re welcome to consult our library. Maybe you’ll find something there about the history of Ometepe, and also about tobacco, about energy.”

After several hours of rooting through the library of the office of agrarian reform, Ruetcel came across a few ancient books that had probably arrived there from some confiscated property. Among them was an archeological work containing excerpts from the chronicles of the conquest, with several pages on the Nahuatl natives, the Nicaraos as they were called. Originally from North America, their ancestors had emigrated to current-day Mexico, where they settled in the Anahuac plain, in the desert of Xochonusco. They lived there for a period of time “equal to the sum total of the lives of seven or eight very old men,” according to an historian, Torquemada, when their enemies, the Olmecs, reduced them to slavery. Then they consulted their caciques, who in turn went off into the mountains for nine days to pray.

Their gods advised them to leave: they did so that very instant. And that is how their exodus began. Three weeks later, their Great Cacique died. They crossed the territories of what is now Guatemala, leaving several families along the way. Then the territories of Salvador and then Honduras. That is where they lost their second cacique. Before dying, he made a prophecy: That they would continue toward the South. That one day in the forest they would find a freshwater sea. That in this sea would lie an island formed by two volcanoes. Ome-Tepetl in their tongue means “Two Volcanoes.” That this was their promised land.

The Nicaraos continued their journey through the jungle, and they wandered for a long time. They did not find the lake of the prophecy, which was west of the route they were following. They went on toward the South, until they arrived in current-day Panama, and they ended up in the Darien in a place called Nombre de Dios. So they turned back, this time along the Pacific Ocean. They encountered two Nahuatl brothers, old traveling companions of another tribe they’d split from years before, who spoke to them of the lake and a magic island in the middle, Ometepe…They were on their way at last to the promised land.

Ruetcel was astounded. Ometepe, the promised land! At last he had a lead, a real lead. He had looked for, met with, questioned, and listened to so many people. He had counted on don Eugenio for clues that might help him find his bearings…but as fascinating as they were, he couldn’t help but be mistrustful of the stories. Could they ever provide him with the key to the legend?

He needed other sources of information. He thought of doña Lucia, an old woman he knew from sight, having passed by her house often during the course of his comings and goings. He decided to meet with her. She was the village healer, and she also was running some sort of a school at her place. She certainly knew a lot about the island.

That morning, like every other morning, a group of people who had come for a visit were waiting outside her home, in the shade of a mango grove. The garden was vast and in bloom. The house, made of planks with a roof of rusty sheet metal, was hidden among the fruit trees. Ruetcel pushed open the wooden gate and moved closer. Doña Lucia was sitting in a sort of hangar, in the center of a group of twenty children seated on chairs, boys and girls, little kids and young teenagers. She was teaching them. It was the time of year when the country celebrated the Independence of 1821. Then, there had been uprisings in the region inspired by the deeds of Bolivar and certain ideals of the French Revolution, leading to the proclamation of the small republics that now make up the mosaic of the States of Central America. On the wall the national flag was drawn on a blackboard. The lesson of that day was dedicated to it.

Standing back a bit, Ruetcel observed the scene. Doña Lucia pointed to the green hills of the flag, inscribed within in a triangle. “The symbol of agriculture!” the children sang out in unison. Then she pointed to the rainbow. “The symbol of peace!” And finally the Phrygian cap, which crowned the scene like a shining sun: “The symbol of liberty!”

Noon was drawing near; the lesson was coming to a close. Doña Lucia came to meet her visitor, leaving the children to the laughter and whispering that the arrival of a stranger had instigated. She offered to meet with him there and then. She had the children sing the national anthem and then the revolutionary song, partly in honor of Ruetcel, so he thought, which moved him, and especially to give proper homage to National Independence Day. The next day was a holiday, she announced. That would be all for today: the group broke up amid shouts and laughter.

Doña Lucia was going on sixty. She was a little roly-poly grandmother, with a moon face and enormous gray eyes under a halo of white locks. She said that she had taken in these kids—some orphans, others neglected by their parents—whom she had seen hanging around the area in the morning because no one had thought to enroll them in school; there in her makeshift school, they were at least learning to read and write.

She seated Ruetcel in a rocking chair in the shade of a trellis of passion fruit; the dirt floor, meticulously swept, had been hosed down to cool off the air.

“I am told you are a healer,” said Ruetcel.

“Yes,” she answered. An old aunt had raised her and taught her the art of traditional medicine. Since her childhood, she had been familiar with the world of plants. She knew the virtues of their roots, flowers, leaves, or bark. She also knew where to find them, which month of the year, and which phase of the moon was the best for picking, which preparation—distilling, decoction, or infusion, filtering or grinding with a mortar and pestle—would obtain the highest concentration of active substances. She had read a few books about white magic and others about black magic. Ever serene, attentive, she had gained the trust of the islanders, who respected her and went to her for help more often than to the doctor.

She told him about village life. She humbly played there a prominent role: the rationing of oil, sugar, and beans, a war-time necessity, was her responsibility. Elected coordinator of the “revolution defense committee” by the local people, she had organized civil defense and the digging of air-raid shelters. She acted as mediator in local conflicts, determined the location of communal drinking-water fountains, of the wash basins and electric poles. She also organized the collection of household garbage. She invited guests to take part in her committee meetings: even if they didn’t agree with the government, she would say, discussions are the only way to solve the problems of the community.

As she saw it, the revolution had brought many good things: literacy, the agricultural reform, the telephone, vaccinations…As for military service, one of her sons was fighting somewhere in the North. She knew it was necessary. But why, why in the world didn’t the United States leave this poor country in peace?

A few weeks earlier, she was called upon to solve a serious problem. A wave of panic was brewing; she was having trouble calming down the spirits. At that time, a North-American plane flew over the country every morning, passing over the island with a thunderous noise that ended in a double bang. The children, the infants would start to cry. It was the famous “Blackbird,” el pájaro negro as people called it. People were worried, and they went to see doña Lucia to ask anxiously if she knew something: With an enemy who had so many airplanes, what was going to happen? A neighbor woman one day had said, “Just think! That airplane must be enormous to make so much noise! You know the trucks, as they leave the village, how they backfire sometimes. Bang! Bang! from their exhaust pipes. Just think what size exhaust pipe that plane must have!”

For an entire week, every day at the same time, that black bird spread its terror. The women said prayers, rosaries. The radio spoke of a “supersonic” spy plane, which was “violating national airspace.” The papers had published its picture, using scientific expressions to explain to the alarmed population the origin of this infernal noise. Doña Lucia wondered. What could the poor compa draftees do against such planes? They who more often than not did not even know how to hold a rifle correctly. Hadn’t she had to care for one of them herself, when the training camp had been set up near the Charco Verde?

The poor boy had been frightened to death, one night, on account of Chico Largo, a phantom, to the point of losing his wits, and ended up wounding himself with his own Kalashnikov. He had been carried to her house by his buddies on a makeshift stretcher of two branches and a blanket: a broken hip, dislocated shoulder, and cracked collar bone. She had applied bandages, made him drink infusions. But more than anything, the poor man had a fever, was delirious, talking, crying out all the time, seeing things that weren’t there. Very restless…In one room of her house, where she always kept eucalyptus leaves burning, she had urged the young man to lie down, to relax. Then, taking an egg, laid that very morning, between the thumb and index of her right hand, and lifting it to his face, staring into the patient’s eyes, she had told him repeatedly to look at nothing else but the egg, to keep his eyes on it, then she had uttered the phrases that were meant to heal him.

She was miming the scene: bringing an imaginary egg close to Ruetcel’s face, then moving it away, then closer again, continuously, saying, “The egg is an extraordinary thing. It’s full of energy. It carries two births inside it, since it is born first from the hen and then gives birth to a chick.” She had pronounced more words until the wounded man fell asleep, his eyes open.

Ruetcel asked her about the Isle of Love and the Charco Verde.

“Did you know that around that island they catch golden fish?” doña Lucia replied. They say that people who eat them fall in love and a spell is cast. They can never leave Ometepe. There are a lot of legends, you know, on our island.”

It did not take much to persuade Ruetcel of this. But what should he make of don Eugenio’s stories? Her tone of voice became serious: Don Eugenio was a respectable man, and good, she stated. At the beginning of the revolution, he had quarreled with Maria, a poor woman who had suffered a great deal, who lived on the Isle of Love, farmed it, and lived off the fish she caught.

“She needed that island, and don Eugenio wasn’t doing much of anything with it,” she said. “He let her have it.”

Her last phrase remained engraved in Ruetcel’s memory. “Coherence is not of this world,” he thought. He was contemplating the pleasant patio, with fragrant flowers, fruit trees, and medicinal plants, which all emanated the same serenity as the mistress of the place. Under an orange tree stood a stone statue of a seated man. A short way off lay several blocks of basalt with petroglyphs that attracted his attention.

“I found them in the garden, in back of the house,” said the old woman. “There are a lot of them here. They say that long ago, Ometepe was a sanctuary.”

A strange feeling came over Ruetcel. A kind of dream: it was no longer with the same eyes that he saw this country, this island, and its inhabitants. While listening to doña Lucia, he recalled the prophecy made to the Nicaraos and the stories told by don Eugenio. He had the vague feeling that he had entered, without realizing it, into the intimacy of their world.

When he took his leave, thanking doña Lucia for her hospitality, she advised him to meet with Maria. He could probably visit her island. She added, laughing, “Who knows? Maybe you’ll catch a golden fish.”

Maria showed no surprise at Ruetcel’s visit. Hirsute and shrill, she was one of those people who talk all the time without worrying if anyone is listening, and who have an irrepressible need to tell their life stories.

She hadn’t known her mother. It was her father who had raised her. He was a hunter; he had green eyes, like hers, cats’ eyes that no prey could escape. No one had ever rivaled him in shooting a puma with a shotgun or a monkey with a slingshot. He had also mastered the art of fishing, which he had passed on to his daughter at an early age. One day he was mortally wounded by a jaguar. Alone, she dug a grave near a spring on the Maderas volcano and buried him there. At thirteen she was with child and shortly thereafter gave birth in the woods to a blue baby who died immediately. She laid him to rest next to her father.

She lived off the fish she caught, going just about everywhere, on the shores of Ometepe, in the bay, between the volcanoes, until experience taught her that the fish were the most abundant near the Isle of Love. She grew accustomed to pulling her canoe up on its beach to lay out her nets or take a nap in the shade of a mango tree. She began to leave her cages there, her lines, built a shelter, even spent the night there sometimes.

She kept a small house in the village, made of planks and bricks, but she preferred her island. The villagers had gotten used to it: little Maria, who was so talkative and sold them fish daily, had chosen to live there. One day a lover went there with her. He made a hut of thatched reeds, with a frame, a kitchen, a sloping roof. They set up house together. She had her first living child. Other lovers, other “husbands” followed…Happy love stories at first, then unhappy, which always ended tragically, leaving her alone on her island with a new child, to the point that the village gave Maria the reputation of a man-eater. Gossip had it that she was a cegüa, one of those mythical women that men, in Central America, are afraid of when they walk through the village streets or along country paths at night. If a cegüa finds a man at midnight, she will put him through a thousand miseries and a thousand horrors before leaving him, a dazed, bewildered, imbecile for life. He won’t wake up until the next morning, along the roadside, his body aching, his head and loins empty…

When the level of the lake became low, toward the end of the dry season, the fishing got bad. Maria would leave her canoe on the beach and go back to the village, living by her wits. That is how it came to pass that for a time she had worked as a day laborer, sorting tobacco leaves for don Eugenio, the Evil One. But she was not one of those who sold themselves to the devil.

She would much more willingly take up her pickaxe and, early in the morning, sneak into certain spots that she knew of on the property of some big landowner. She sought out the banana plantations, because their vegetation hid her from prying eyes. There was no need to dig very deep in the black soil and light ash to find the terra cotta pots and funeral urns. With a little luck, and that kind of luck was not scarce, one of those urns would be filled with jewels, a pot would surrender Luna ceramics, incense burners, tripods decorated with polychromatic paintings. Sometimes she would come across a gold figurine. She would stuff these treasures into a jute sack that she slung over her shoulder and head for the port, leaving behind her the opened earth, and the shattered pots and urns. She would board one of those big sail boats with bulky hulls that transport dried fish and pottery back and forth between the shores of the lake and Ometepe. A day or two later, depending on the winds, she was in Granada, where she had a “friend,” a lawyer and notary. The well-to-do sitting in their rocking chairs on their patios would watch this old hunchbacked woman go by in rags without ever suspecting that on her back she was carrying a bit of the treasure of their history. She sold everything to her “friend” for a song, then went back to her island until the next trip. The notary sold his booty to gringos. They came to see him regularly and paid in good greenbacks. The polychromatic and the Luna ceramics of Ometepe wound up in New York on display in art galleries, and collectors made bids for them, a thousand times, ten thousand times what the Maria had been given.

It was in this way, with what heaven gave her, fishing from the lake, digging in the fields, in search of food and the vestiges of time, that doña Maria had been able to survive and feed her children, as the years went by, and from one lover to the next. It was on the Quiste, the Isle of Love, that she had given birth to her children. Nine sons. Nine sons that she had had from nine different fathers…

Her last son’s name was Jesus, and the second to the last, Judas. They were seventeen and nineteen years old. She refused to let them do their military service, counting on them for her old age. She had already sent three sons off to war, and that was enough. They had enlisted, they were anti-Contra and anti-Yankee. Maria understood them. She was even proud of them. But Judas and Jesus would not go, for she needed them. Just let them try to take her sons away from her.

She was flattered by Ruetcel’s visit, flattered too that he should ask permission to go to her island. Usually the people from Ometepe went there as if they owned the place, ignoring her and treating her without respect.

She knew that some people liked solitude: a priest once, had spent over a month on the little island, she said. Ruetcel could stay there as long as he liked. Jesus and Judas would set him up there with some provisions. There was nothing to fear; her sons were the best sailors on Ometepe.

She changed the subject abruptly to the price of things, the cost of living, and how hard times were. For a small fee, she offered him accommodation in her thatched hut on the island. He accepted. To write up the report on his study, what better place was there than Maria’s island?

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