The dull pulse of the boat motor echoed back form the dense wall of tangled greenery that crowded its way to the edge of the river bank. The chirps and clicks from a thousand insects set an unearthly cadence that was palpable. Mist swirled overhead, opening now and again to let the sun’s rays play off the living pearls of dew that rolled down from leaf to quivering leaf, back into the brown waters of the Rio Oscuro.
The boat was a light and narrow craft. I sat under the canvas awning with my suitcase and duffle bag. It wasn’t even mid-morning, and I was sweating. I should have dressed more sensibly, worn lighter clothes. I envied my guides who wore only loin cloths.
My clothing was always damp with sweat. The heat and humidity made the trip unbearable. Even the breeze coming off the water was warm and fetid. The chatter of monkeys was tiresome, the biting insects were bothersome and painful. The occasional shadowy animal, drawn undoubtedly by the sound of the motor, would stalk us, making its way through the undergrowth that grew along the riverbank. The relentless heat, discomfort, annoyance and unpredictability reached out like a smothering and heavy hand from the jungle and kept its dank grip on me and the boat.
On the second day out, in the early afternoon I laid back on my duffle back, and looked up at the cloudy sky through a tear in the canvas canopy. I lazily trailed my fingertips in the water. Miguel, who sat at the bow, turned toward me and urgently drew me out of my torpid reverie.
“Señor, señor, los dedos, los dedos!”
In my sleepy stupor I sat forward and looked over the side of the boat. An anaconda as round as my thigh and at least five meters long, swam beside us. I felt its scales slither against my fingertips. I jerked my hand out of the water and with a pounding heart, watched the snake swim to the shore and disappear into the undergrowth. Miguel and his brother Ramon, the pilot, smiled and made a joke in Quechuan. I did not understand what they said. I did not get off the boat for the rest of the trip.
We were headed to El Paradiso, the estate of Señor Hèctor Alvarez. I should have checked in to the main office in Quito, but now we were out of cell phone range. I would have to wait until I arrived. There was no cell phone service, but Señor Alvarez had mentioned in one of his letters that he owned a short wave radio and was an amateur operator.
I had yet to meet Señor Alvarez. I was able to glean enough internet information to discover that his ancestors were the recipients of a sizable 16th century Spanish land grant, a wonderfully large plateau, larger than some municipalities. I read reports that the rugged cliffs and steep hillsides that led up to the plateau were crisscrossed with fast running streams and made near impassible by the dense jungle forest.
I didn’t mind being sent on this remote assignment. I asked for it and was actually glad to leave civilization for a while. I botched a perfectly innocent affair by falling in love. It seemed obvious to me Sylvie simply married the wrong man. I knew her husband Alex and her by way of symposiums and professional conferences we attended. Alex and I were little more than business acquaintances, if even that. The other engineers had their wives in tow to these events. I was the only bachelor in the group of six or seven couples. While we engineers attended lectures and discussions, the ladies usually went sightseeing or shopping to pass the time.
I decided to skip one of the afternoon lectures. I didn’t get to Quito that often and I wanted to visit some of the book shops. I liked the used bookshops best. I loved the musty scent of the old books, the different colored spines; each book as different and unique as that troubled or driven writer who measured and meted out each and every word used to build the mysterious construct that wove the author’s soul into his or her story or poem.
The rain in April was cold and the dinning noise it made on the roof of the book shop and the way it ran down the windows in erratic little paths, I found soothing. I felt snug and warm. I spotted Browning’s ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’. It was a nice edition with its green leather cover and golden incised decorations. It was old, printed in the 1890s. Well used; it even had certain passages incased in penciled parenthesis, by the lightest, and most reverent hand.
I did not have an umbrella, so at the first break in the rain I took to the street hoping to stop a cab. Luck would have it otherwise. The street was empty. I decided to walk to the next major cross street, three blocks up, which had a traffic signal. The rain started again with a vengeance. The nearest shelter was an empty phone booth. I no sooner entered and pulled the door closed when the figure of a woman, her wet hair obscuring her face, knocked on the glass. I pulled the door open and moved as far inside the booth as I could.
“Enter,” I said with a smile. When she pulled her hair to the side I recognized her. “Sylvie, Sylvie, I can’t believe it is you. Yes, do come in,” I said with a pleased chuckle.
She beamed when she recognized me, “What a wonderful…well… coincidence.” She was just able to close the door, but not without pressing up against me. We stood facing each other, grinning. We were familiar enough to exchange a loose, polite hug when we met, smiling glances and dinner conversation.
“Oh, my poor hair.” She frowned and pulled it together and wrung out a little stream of water.
“Not out shopping with the girls?”
“No, they wanted to go see a movie. I didn’t want to go. You mentioned there were book shops along this street, somewhere…I was hoping to maybe run into you…well it seems I did.”
“If only you would have let me known, we could have gone together. That’s just where I came from; the bookshops begin the next block down.”
“So, here we are.”
In the tight space between us I was just able to hold up the book of poetry.
“Browning, one of my favorites.” She worked her hand up to mine and touched the cover. “What an apropos moment to quote her words:
When our two souls stand up erect and strong
Face to face, Silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point,---what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented?”
Sylvie looked at me with a curious sadness.
“Beautiful,” was all I could say. Since I had made her acquaintance, I had noticed Sylvie wasn’t quite in sync with the other wives; always a little late with her smiles and not as generous with her laughter.
“That’s not the entire sonnet. The rest is…well…not so apropos. Well, here we are face to face, drawing nigh and nigher,”she said with a delicate tone of anticipation.
The rain fell harder and harder. The sound was deafening. I couldn’t see more than a few feet past the glass doors. The heat from our bodies caused the glass sides of the booth to steam up. The entire world beyond no longer existed.
Sylvie reached up and touched my cheek. “I’ve always wanted to do that.” She kept her hand there and her eyes looking into mine.
I was at a bit of a loss. She was a very attractive woman. It was true I stole enough curious glances of her, I caught her doing the same of me when, as a group we went to lunch. I flirted with those wives who would let me. I flirted only because I really had nothing to say. With Sylvie it was different; I didn’t want to be clever or overly free with those light, laughing compliments. There was something tragic in her eyes. On a few occasions I ran into her and Alex in an intimate little restaurant close to our hotel. All smiles, she was the one to invite me to join them. Alex seemed oblivious to the way Sylvie’s mood brightened when I shared their table. She always left me as if she had more to say. I didn’t think much of it at the time, now I realized she had always been reaching out to me.
A bolt of lightning stuck not more than a block away and rattled the phone booth; the light was blinding. Sylvie pulled me in tight. I often wondered what it would be like to hold her in my arms. I closed my eyes. I ran my hand down the curve of her back and the felt the pressure of her breast against my chest. She was soft and her perfumed skin was like silk. Holding her almost took my breath away. It could have ended there as we both could rationalize that our actions were no more than giving each other comfort in an extraordinary and frightening situation, but it didn’t. Sylvie raised her leg and worked it in between mine. She pulled my face to hers and kissed me. I am only a man. I kissed her back. We stood in that unlikely embrace until the rain let up and for a little while longer.
The rest of the tale was not very remarkable. It is the path that all affairs follow, selfishness, deception, and on my part being overly possessive. Ours was a garden too toxic to truly nurture love. We played the game for almost nine months. The romantic in me wanted her; wanted her to fall in love with me. I was convinced I was in love with her. Sylvie did not want or need me. I satisfied her ego and those painful longings to feel important enough to be loved. And so it ended for her, but not for me.
Two months after our break-up I ran into her and Alex on the street. Alex was all smiles. Sylvie was polite but emotionless. They just found out she was four months pregnant. The baby she carried could just as well have been mine. I was desperate to ask Sylvie, but I knew she would never tell me. The few times I called her she had only one answer, “No.” I felt helpless and numb. I gave my hollow congratulations. I watched the two stroll away arm in arm. I cheated myself out of a son or daughter. I couldn’t accept Sylvie was lost to me. And if things had worked out as I wanted them to, if she divorced Alex and married me, it would have been professional suicide. I learned my lesson; I would never put myself in that position again. I would never be so stupid and selfish and try to shape an impossible situation into something it wasn’t. The losses were too great.
“Señor, Señor, almost there,” Miguel announced as the dock came into view. I was so glad to be setting foot on solid ground. It had been an uncomfortable four day journey. As we approached, a manatee surfaced displaying its glistening, voluptuous body. She gracefully swam next to the boat, rolled on her back and looked directly at me. Ramon eased the throttle, “Look, a good thing Señor, she welcomes you. You will be lucky in love.” We both laughed. I saw a number of dugout canoes tied up to the pilings and a handful of naked little boys and girls waving to us.
We docked. The children smiled and surrounded me and urged me to toss centavos in the water so they could dive after them. I fulfilled my part in the ritual. Moments later they stood before me dripping and smiling, each with a coin and suggested I do it again. Miguel and Ramon good naturedly chased them off with a flap of their arms.
Beyond the dock house, on the red, dirt road, I saw the Land Rover waiting in the shade. The driver, Señor Alvarez’s head man, a pacified tribesman named Leòn, greeted me with a tepid handshake and hefted my duffle bag on his shoulder and led me to the vehicle.
“Señor Aguila, El Patròn welcomes you. Our trip to El Paradiso will take maybe two hours, maybe three.”
The road was rutted and bumpy. Branches and fronds reached out and clawed and scratched at all sides of the Land Rover as if trying to pull us into the undergrowth. There was no view to speak of, only a twinkling tunnel made through the tangle of low brush, large green leaves and overhead, vines and flowering creepers and still higher, the canopies of the great trees.
We traveled inland for maybe twelve kilometers. I heard birds and the chatter of monkeys but I saw no animals. Leòn came to a jarring stop. A jaguar appeared out of the brush and stopped on the road. Its golden eyes burned into mine. Leòn looked away from the animal; he even held his hand up to shield his face and gave the big cat a wide berth. I expected him to say something, but he didn’t. He didn’t even look at me. We drove off in silence. Leòn appeared anxious and now all of his concentration was spent on driving, and that was fine with me.
The road was a series of switch backs, and at one, we had to abandon the Land Rover. From then on for at least a kilometer, because of landslides, the road was a debris field of dirt, fallen trees and rocks and stones and huge boulders, many as large as the Land Rover. The selva had almost reclaimed that section of the road with a tangle of greenery that Leòn had to hack away to make a path through. Because of its difficult location the road had never been cleared. We hiked to the Jeep that Leòn had left on the other side of the barrier, and continued.
We finally reached the plateau by mid-afternoon. A roiling mist greeted us. The road wasn’t much better but it was straight and fairly flat and uncluttered. Leòn made short work of the next fifteen kilometers.
We mounted the last rise. El Paradiso, protected by a high, white washed adobe wall, dominated the view. A vast prado, or meadowland spread out to the north and the south and in front of me. The jungle crept up the rugged foothills in an extreme incline to the eastern edge of the plateau and was stopped by the rear wall of the compound.
El Paradiso was a relic of colonial days with its white stucco colonnade, rooved in red tiles that defined the court yard and side yards. The large two story house sat back maybe twenty meters from the colonnade. The tall windows were framed with heavily decorated stone casings, undoubtedly imported from Spain or Italy. Much of the stucco was chalky and crumbling and long dark stains bled from the corners of the windows and roof scuppers. All of the trees and plants and vines around the house were cut back. I saw an octagon shaped reflecting pool done in yellow and blue tiles reminiscent of something one might see at the Alhambra.
Leòn parked the Jeep and led me inside. The great room was cool and had a wonderfully tall ceiling. All the windows were un-shuttered and a slight breeze circulated the humid air just enough to dry the sweat on my face and neck.
“Please sit, Señor Aguila.” Leòn said and left the room.
The house was so still and quiet. I sat on an overstuffed sofa and immediately relaxed to the point I might fall asleep. It felt wonderful not to be jostled.
Leòn returned and told me, “El Patròn is working. He said he looks forward to meeting you at the evening meal. Follow me to your room, upstairs. There is a basin, soap and towels. Please Señor, if you need anything, tell me.”
I followed Leòn up the stairs to my room. The shutters were closed and I succumbed to the darkness a few moments after I lie down on the bed.
I don’t know how long I slept. The sun was just on the horizon and blades of orange light burned through the louvered shutters. I heard voices downstairs. I was awake now and knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. I got out from under the mosquito netting. My door was open and as I stood in the doorway, I heard a woman’s voice coming from the next room over. I ventured onto the landing and quietly stood in front of her door and listened. She was reciting poetry.
“All the glory of my golden tresses gleams upon the air,
How it falls about my snowy shoulders, round and bare and white;
My lips are full of love as rounded grapes are full of wine,
And my eyes are large and languid, and full of dewy light;
Oh, I lure the idle landsmen many a league for love of me,
For I am the Siren, the Siren of the sea.”
I recognized the poet immediately, Marietta Holley. I never imagined hearing those words here, on a remote plateau in the far reaches of the Amazon jungle. I couldn’t help myself, so I repeated the next verse back to her.
“Sometimes they press so near that my breath is on their cheek,
And their eager hands can almost touch the glowing bowl I bear,
They can see the beaded froth, the ruby glitter of the wine,
Then I slip from their embraces like a breath of summer air;
Oh, I lightly, lightly glide away, they come no nigher me,
For I am the Siren, the Siren of the sea.”
The lady shrieked. I heard soft shuffling from inside stop at the door. I looked down. Two little shadows crept out over the threshold and touched the soles of my shoes.
“Who is that?” she asked. Her voice trembled.
“A house guest, Señor Aguila, El Señor Alvarez sent for me. I’m here to design a solar collection system to generate electricity. I’m here to bring you light.”
“Yes, ah yes, Señor Aguila.” She opened the door slightly. The sun poured in from behind and surrounded her. I could see only part of her face, and the flash in her eyes.
“I’m sorry if I upset you. I didn’t mean to invade your privacy but I just woke up after a nap and I heard your voice. Please forgive me.” I took a step back as I noticed I was standing a little too near.
“You are more than forgiven. Hearing you recite that verse to me is something that I know I will always cherish. You can’t know how uplifting that was.”
“It seems we have something in common. We both like poetry. I can only imagine we also share an appreciation of some of the same poets.”
“Yes, I’m sure we will have much to discuss, tonight perhaps after dinner, that is if you are not too tired, Señor Aguila.”
“And dear lady, you are?”
“La Señora Alvarez. I must rest now. It was nice meeting you.”
“The pleasure was mine.” I nodded and smiled.
She softly closed the door.