The Devil's Clerk

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VII

As a mast, Jesus stuck a piece of wood in a slot in the canoe’s seat and unraveled ropes to free a sail made of jute sacks assembled after a fashion. The rim of the boat rose only a few inches above the level of the lake. Judas steered with the help of a paddle. The trade winds were good and blowing in the direction of the Isle of Love.

Their canoe was approaching. The sun was setting, and he felt moved as he remembered the legend that don Eugenio had told him about the small island. The waters were prodigiously abundant with fish, harboring multitudes of sardines, which made its surface shiver.

Birds took flight. By the millions. Wild ducks, sparrows, parrots. There were hawks, too. From the rushes at the southern end, two herons and several immaculate egrets were watching the lake, imperturbable, living feather statues.

The Isle of Love was the exposed tip of an ancient crater. Basalt cliffs, in a semicircle, facing east, and swept by the trade winds, closed off the western side. The other shore, protected from the wind, faced the Charco Verde. There, without a single wave, the waters of the lake washed up against a beach of black sand, where the canoe would soon come to rest.

As he set foot on the ground, he had the very real sensation that he was entering a dream. A few yards from the water’s edge stood Maria’s hut, topped by a roof of palms, in the shade of an old mango tree. Around it were split canoes with bamboo cages and coils of old rope strewn about.

The hut was made of only one room, with a doorless opening in the thatched wall. Near a primitive hearth were a jumble of battered pots and pans, calabashes, glasses, big spoons, and plates made of wood. On the wall hung a canvas sack filled with walnut-size pebbles, and a slingshot for which the stones served as ammunition. On another nail hung a game pouch crudely sewn from the seat of an old pair of trousers.

A box spring without a mattress, a hammock hung diagonally. A bench hewn from the wood of an old canoe. On one shelf, a hen’s nest, next to a crucifix. On another, a kerosene lamp.

Outside, the vegetation surrounding the hut was a wild hybrid of both garden and orchard: lemon trees, hibiscus, red pepper bushes, guava tress, flowering banana trees, coconut trees, avocado trees. A toucan, with the plumage of a crow and a brightly colored beak, appeared from time to time in the branches of the mango tree, while blue jays held counsel in the leaves of the almond tree. Hummingbirds sipped at the orange blossoms, like bees, hovering in the air, suspended in time.

Night was falling. Jesus and Judas were growing visibly impatient. He accompanied them back to their canoes. On their way down to the beach, they passed a pile of driftwood, a cemetery of dead tree trunks, entwined in strange configurations, that looked like they had been hauled out of the water and gathered together on the beach to form a sculpture, and Judas explained that it was the stock of firewood for cooking the fish, corn tortillas, and beans. The polished wood had aged over the centuries at the bottom of the lake. It was heavy, smooth and pleasant to the touch, hard as rock, and showed signs of the axe, long pink and mahogany wounds. In the sand lay an axe, its metal shining in the growing dusk.

“That’s what you’ll use for firewood,” said Judas. “That wood is precious. It comes from the trees that shaded my ancestors, before the deluge.”

The next morning, Ruetcel took a small wooden table from inside the house and set it at the water’s edge. And it was there, on the Isle of Love, seated on a stool with his feet in the water, facing the Charco Verde, that he worked.

During a hike he spotted, at the foot of the cliff, a small peninsula jutting out toward the east. A steep path led to it. It was a block of stone with geometrical shapes, like a basalt dice. The most mysterious place on the island. Two leafless almond trees had taken root there, their branches whitewashed by bird droppings, their trunks stretching out over the water. He remained standing a long moment under these trees, his feet practically in the water, on a narrow terrace cut into the rock on the peninsula. Huge fish stirred just under the ruffled surface of the lake.

On the basalt wall behind him, he noticed a groove, rubbed out in places. A petroglyph, he figured. He picked up a small branch whitened by droppings and tried to trace over the lines of the drawing. The wood splintered. With a feather, he continued to look for the lines there where the groove seemed to disappear. The original petroglyph finally appeared clearly. The old man from Urbaite had not made up his legend about the Isle of Love: for what were perhaps millennia, a couple of dancers, male and female, had been there, immobile, facing the volcanoes, every morning facing the rising sun…

He continued to climb, arriving at the summit of the basalt dice. The wind was stronger here than on the terrace with the dancers petroglyph, which now lay below him. Behind him was the outline of the isthmus of Rivas, the hill of the Charco Verde, the palm trees on its beach. In front of him, the volcanoes. The union of their two flanks formed an immense chalice opened to the sky, as if it had been set on the horizon. Ruetcel remained standing, immobile, his arms apart so that he could feel the trade winds blow against his body. Time passed. Several black ducks alighted on the branches of the almond trees in front of him. It was late afternoon. But did time still exist? He saw the sun set, plunge into the lake. He turned around: between the volcano of water and the volcano of fire, rose the disk—enormous, orange—of the full moon.

Suddenly he had a revelation. Ometepe is a Holy Place for the Nahuatl civilization. One of the great sanctuaries of Central America, along with Tikal, Atitlàn, Copàn. How could it be ignored? Such a blatant fact! The wealth of statues, petroglyphs, and ceramics in this site is well-known: this secret is within reach! Just listen to the people of the region. Isn’t it true that whenever the name Ometepe is mentioned, someone invariably throws in “Ometepe, the Sanctuary? el Santuario?” No one even notices it anymore: it has become a habit, like adding “May he rest in peace” after saying the name of someone who has passed away.

Was it so difficult to listen? To look?

An inside sea, a sea of freshwater: Lake Cocibolca. The largest lake in Central America. At its heart, a double island, whose volcanoes can be seen from miles around. From their summits, on a clear day, the view opens out on the two oceans, one to the east, the other to the west. Look at these volcanoes. Their perfect cones. The highest is active. It belches fire and ash. Mountain of fire. The second harbors a reservoir of rain water. From its flanks spring waterfalls. Mountain of water. The first is bald and barren. Its crater throws out lava. Its name is Concepción. The second has a wet crater hidden away in a dense jungle. Its name is Maderas, which means woods, forests.

Mountains of Fire and Water.

Volcanoes Male and Female.

Temple of the Sun.

Temple of the Moon.

Pyramids rising out of the waters…

This is what Ruetcel saw: in the hollow of the chalice of Ometepe, between the two volcanoes, rose the full moon. And when dawn came, the sun would rise there. This is what he saw: from all over Central America, all eyes converge on Ometepe. It was the promised land the prophecies spoke of. The caciques went there to get married, or consult with their gods. The high priests raised their altars there, offering up their sacrifices. It was a holy place. A cathedral. Ometepe was perhaps the mother of the pyramids built by men. They were created in its image.

Ellipse in the hollow of the chalice of the volcanoes, the moon filled out across the sky as its halo grew, ring of light, orange, brown, whose gradated tones faded into the blue of the night, purifying into seven huge circles with the colors of the rainbow. And so the night would pass, until there, above Concepción, rose Venus, Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, whose return would mark the end of time on this earth.

Jesus and Judas came back for Ruetcel. They asked him if his stay had been pleasant, if he had been able to sleep. If he hadn’t seen lights in the evening around Charco Verde, like balls of fire that moved slowly, then flew off suddenly at top speed. If the spirits had left him alone. If they hadn’t frightened him at night. He made the tactless mistake of taking this conversation lightly and teased the two brothers on the subject.

“Yes,” he claimed, he had been paid a “visit,” the night of the full moon. They had talked with him a good long while. A very pleasant evening.

At these words, Maria’s sons went pale. He saw fear come over the face of Jesus and felt Judas become suddenly very nervous. They hurried to be off, to leave the island, raised the sail hastily and paddled along to get away as fast as possible.

Ruetcel was no longer just a stranger curious about the legend. Angel had told him one day—he hadn’t been careful—his frequent visits with don Eugenio were beginning to set tongues wagging… People had begun to believe that he was, like don Eugenio, sort of a Devil's clerk...

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