I didn’t know what time it was when I awoke, only that the near full moon rode high in the sky. I left Alma asleep in bed and slipped out from under the netting and stood out on the balcony. In the moonlight I saw a dark form cross the rear lawn. The jaguar returned. She paced back and forth under the window several times, then stopped and looked up at me. With a running bound she made it half way up the tree that grew close to the hacienda, then clawed her way up to the roofline, and made a graceful leap. The jaguar walked across the roof toward the balcony. I ducked inside just before it jumped down.
My heart was pounding. I shook Alma until she woke up. “It’s out there, it’s back.” I whispered.
Alma barely opened her eyes. “Emilio?” she said softly, “what is it?” She lay her head back down on the pillow and closed her eyes.
I grabbed her shoulders and sat her up. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, held on to my arm for balance and quickly looked around. “What is it, Emilio? What is it? Is Hèctor back?”
“It’s back, the jaguar is on the balcony.” I tried not to sound too frightened.
We went to the window. I opened the louvers just enough to give us a view of the balcony. It was empty.
“It was there, I swear to God, it was.” I wanted to make sure, so I left Alma by the window and with a bit of caution opened the door just a little. The jaguar was gone. I had to ask myself that why, in the space of five days, did this creature come to my door twice? When I thought of Maria Terèsa’s and Leòn’s warnings I surmised the jaguar may not be coming for me. “Let’s go to the kitchen and have some coffee.”
“Coffee? It’s the middle of the night? I’ll never get back to sleep. I’m going back to sleep.”
I gave up on the idea of trying to keep Alma awake. I really didn’t know if that would make any difference anyway, so I climbed back into bed with her. She snuggled against my chest. I wasn’t able to sleep. Alma had no problem. I don’t think she moved for the rest of the night. I may have nodded off a few times and I was glad when the sun finally rose. When it was light enough to see without a lamp I got out of bed, washed and dressed. I left Alma there asleep.
Maria Terèsa was already in the kitchen. I yawned and sat at the little round table. “Hay cafè, Maria Terèsa?”
She poured a cup and brought it to me.
I took a sip and looked up when I saw the jeep’s headlights snaking through the dawn toward the hacienda. I wondered what kind of mood Hèctor would be in and what he might say. In a few minutes Hèctor came through the kitchen door. He looked tired but stood a little straighter when he saw me.
“Aye bruja, cafè.” Hèctor sat at the table. “So, you’ve changed your mind, hey?” He addressed me. Maria Terèsa brought him a cup of coffee.
I was glad he wasn’t wearing his pistol. “About what?” I ventured.
“Why, hunting the jaguar…what did you think?” He added with a smile, “You don’t have to be in bed with my wife all day and all night.” He punctuated the sentence by giving me a not so playful jab to my shoulder. I think he enjoyed watching me tense up and endure his tap without a flinch.
“Well Emilio, you can either come with me or not. As I said, I have an old Enfield you can use.”
“Like I said, I’m not much of a hunter.”
“It’s hunt or be hunted… that is the way out here. No cozy little hideaways as one might find in the city.”
“No, I don’t suppose there are.” I wondered why he alluded to the city.
We both sipped at our coffee. “Aguila, I hope you are making some headway on the project, sì?”
“Yes, “I lied.
“Good, there are somethings I must do out on the plateau with the coffee. I won’t be back for at least a week. Tell my wife when she finally wakes up, the coffee drying starts today.” Alvarez looked away from me and to Maria Terèsa, “Bring me meat and eggs. I am hungry.”
I finished my coffee and stood. “There are some project details I must attend to.”
The corner of Alvarez’s mouth crept into a knowing smile. “Oh yes, I’m sure there are... and Aguila, pace yourself.” He chuckled.
I left the kitchen. I really didn’t want to go back to my room; Alma would be there, most likely asleep, but already just the thought of her was temptation enough, even with Alvarez in the house, for me to want to strip my clothes off and get back in bed with her. Alvarez was right about the mice playing.
I took stock of the time. I had a little less than ten weeks left to finish the project. I decided to collect my maps and charts from the dressing chest in my room and work in the library. I all but tiptoed up the stairs and opened the door as quietly as I could. The morning light filled the room with a golden glow. I saw the maps and my workbooks. I would be in and out in just a few seconds. I went to the dressing chest and collected what I would need. As I turned toward the door I heard Alma moan and watched her turn over.
I stepped over to the bed. Alma looked like a sleeping princess lying there under the pavilion of netting. She flinched now and then, and her head moved slightly from side to side; her brow wrinkled. Alma began to pant. An expression of pain rolled across her face. I became worried. I pulled the net to the side and leaned in and took her in my arms. “Alma, wake up…”
Alma didn’t open her eyes. She put her arms around me. She held on uncomfortably tight. She dug her fingernails into my back. I stifled a cry of pain. She put her open mouth against my neck, right under my ear. She started to bite but at the last second, she pulled herself back, but not without a quick painful nip. I pushed her away and stood up. “Alma! Wake up.” I grabbed her shoulders and shook her. Her head lolled to the left and right and finally hung down. I gently laid her back onto the pillow. She let out a barely audible moan with each exhalation.
I hurried to the kitchen. Hector had already eaten and left to go hunting. Thank God Maria Terèsa was still there. Before I could say anything she spoke.
How she knew what I did escaped me. “I told you not to try to wake her.” She dried her hands on her apron, gave me an impatient and perplexed look. I followed her up the stairs and back to my room.
Alma crouched in the corner between the dressing chest and the window. She had wrapped her arms around her legs. Her blond hair hung down over her forehead and covered her knees. I stood and watched and rubbed my neck where Alma nipped me.
Maria Terèsa knelt next to her. She pulled Alma against her bosom, cradled her head and gently stroked her hair, all the while gently rocking her and constantly whispering into her ear.
I was about to say something when Alma gasped and exhaled a writhing puff of golden mist that Maria Terèsa inhaled. Maria Terèsa slumped against Alma pinning her against the wall.
Alma awoke. She had trouble supporting Maria Terèsa and looked up to me with frightened eyes. “Emilio, please help us.”
I helped Maria Terèsa stand. She was pale. She pointed to the balcony and urgently nodded. I opened the door and guided her to the railing. She held on with both hands and in a throaty cough expelled the golden vapor she had just breathed in. She leaned on me with all her weight while I led her back inside and helped her to sit in the chair next to the bed. “It is gone, for now,” she whispered out of breath, “I sent it back to the selva.”
“What’s happening?” Alma whimpered.
I turned to her. Tears glistened in her eyes and she reached out to me. I went to Alma and helped her to her feet. She held on to me and wouldn’t let go. Finally I twisted out of her desperate embrace, guided her to the bed and sat next to her.
“It was terrible, I wanted to kill you. I just barely stopped myself. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Her words tailed into a string of convulsive sobs.
“Well, you didn’t.” I caressed Alma’s shoulder and gave her light, little kisses on her forehead and cheeks and lips. She stopped crying and fought back a few sniffles.
Maria Terèsa slowly stood and leaned on the dressing chest. “I must rest,” she said. I hugged Alma and kissed her once more. We helped Maria Terèsa down stairs. By the time we made it back to Maria Terèsa’s sleeping quarters, off the kitchen, both women had somewhat returned to themselves.
Maria Terèsa went to her bed and lie down, she motioned I shut the door. I did so quietly and Alma and I sat at the little round table in front of the window. “Are you ready for coffee now?”
She nodded. I filled a cup for her and one for myself. Alma moved her chair so it touched mine. She slipped her hand under my shirt and rubbed my back with the palm of her hand where earlier she tried to claw me.
“All I can say is I’m sorry,” she said in a small, childish voice.
I accepted her apology with a nod and put my arm around her shoulder. Alma left her chair and sat on my lap and leaned her head on my chest. “I’m frightened, Emilio. Hold me.”
I held her a little tighter. Alma pressed her cheek against mine. Her hair smelled like the sweet jungle flowers. I looked down and saw she had closed her eyes. “I’m so tired,” she sighed. “I just can’t keep awake.”
Her breathing became regular and deep. Her body relaxed against mine. Something about her, even in this impossible situation, drew me closer and closer. She was so strange and beautiful, vulnerable and sensual.
Hector left. For the next five days we were inseparable. Time no longer existed. Alma made no more journeys into that cursèd world beyond. I made absolutely no progress on the project.
Our time was spent becoming lovers. I explored every delicious curve and crevice of her body, and she was an eager student to learn mine. We entered a realm where every sensation, every touch, every kiss no matter how pure or taboo was deeper and more heartfelt than the last. We awoke every morning in each other’s arms, our naked bodies ready and aching for that invitation held in a mischievous glance or gentle caress, both knowing those coy little actions were not really necessary, but they gave us the impression of spontaneity. We found our own paradiso in each other’s eyes and winsome smiles and warm, impatient flesh. We hungered for those frenzied depths of hedonism we brought upon one another. And when we were spent, we laughed but we still dallied at the carnal feast and echoed the act with a well-placed, teasing touch for one last devilish quiver or one last rocking thrust.
We remained naked all morning and took breakfast quite late. After we ate, Alma would read me poetry. She liked it when I lie on the bed, propped up by the pillows and she would snuggle in as if I were a living chaise lounge. She would lean back and hold her book of poetry and read while I might try to distract her with little kisses on her neck or I might caress her breasts or rest my idle hands in that patch of Eden.
We spent each afternoon outside the walls of the hacienda, most times just going for a walk or taking a blanket and picnic lunch Maria Terèsa packed. Alma wore a short, pale yellow sundress of the lightest cloth, sandals and, nothing else. The slightest breeze caused the fluttering fabric to conform to every fine and delicate detail of her body.
Every day we strolled away from the hacienda to a tree studded meadow. We’d spread out our blanket and lie in the shade of a mahogany tree. We ate and talked. She invited me to put my head in her lap. As she traced the contours of my face with her fingertips, Alma told me about her life in America and her childhood dreams. I told her about myself. The simplest touch or smile kept us in a constant state of excitement and no matter where we were or what time of day or night it might be, we made our dream-like love with complete abandon.
The kisses and caresses and smiles cracked open our hardened chrysalises spun from our longings and disappointment and desperate moments of the past; freed our souls until our lengthening wings broke into fire at either curvèd point--- Love conquered us.
As the days were heaven, the nights for me, were the opposite. Alma slept as soundly as a child in my arms. I on the other hand would sleep just enough to feel somewhat rested, then I was awakened with a strange, almost hypnotic urge.
Each night I was ‘called’ to wakefulness and I would go to the kitchen, sit at the little round table and wait. The full moon was on the wane, but its soft, shadowy light illuminated the rear yard. I saw a dark form on the top of the wall jump down onto the path and slink toward the hacienda. It was the jaguar. She stopped outside the window and looked directly into my eyes.
I was speechless but also fascinated; drawn to her, to look back into those golden eyes. I left my seat, went to the window and leaned forward close to the glass. The jaguar did the same. I put my palm on the cool glass for balance. The jaguar contorted its face, snarled and lunged at me. I jumped back and scrambled to my feet. I backed away, not letting the great cat out of sight. The jaguar sat back on its haunches and began to daintily lick her paw.
I knocked on Maria Terèsa’s door. It seemed like an eternity before she opened it. “Ah, Señor Aguila, what is it?” she yawned.
“Come quickly,” I took her hand and hurried across the kitchen to the window. “Look.”
She leaned closer and looked about. I pointed. She even rubbed her eyes and looked again. “Señor, there is nothing there. “What did you see?” she yawned again.
I looked directly at the jaguar and then back at Maria Terèsa. “You see nothing?”
She shook her head.
I looked back one more time. The jaguar was gone. “I saw the jaguar,” I said softly.
Maria Terèsa gravely nodded. “She comes just for you, señor…but do not worry, as long as you stay out of the selva and inside the hacienda she cannot hurt you.”
I nodded that I understood.
“Return to you bed, señor. Go to la Patrònita, hold her in your arms. Go to sleep, mi hijo.” She turned away and returned to her room.
This went on for the next four nights. I would be awakened, go to the kitchen and wait for my nemesis to appear. I did not bother Maria Terèsa. I waited and watched until the jaguar came and paced back and forth in front of the window. I faced its growl without a flinch. Perhaps it sensed my confidence or arrogance. Impatience overcame her fierceness and she left with as much stealth as she entered the rear yard. Each night I returned to the warmth of our bed and held Alma in my arms and slept until daybreak.
Neither of us wanted to think about Hector, or what would happen when he returned. I only thought of us leaving this so called paradiso and returning to civilization and finally making a real life. I wanted a life with Alma, she was so smart, soulful, and pretty. I wanted a family. We would have beautiful children. We could live in Quito or Bogotá, or I would be happy to emigrate and live in America. As soon as we left this place we would leave that surreal spirit world behind. There are no jaguars in the city to find and torment us.
On one of our precious afternoons we lie entwined, in a hammock and watched a veil of rain drops splash down off the veranda roof. A cool breeze caused gooseflesh and we snuggled against one another even closer.
“When he comes back, we will go to him and tell him that I am going to leave with you,” said Alma.
“We could leave now,” I said. “It would probably be a two day hike off the plateau, down through the selva and back to the outpost. I do have some money, around four hundred dollars. We can hire a boat to take us back up the Rio Oscuro.”
“Emilio, I don’t know what would happen to me if I had to spend a night in the jungle. If we had the jeep, we could go fast and be away in less than half a day.”
“I don’t think we should wait for him. He wants to keep you here. He needs to keep you here.”
She rolled against me, pressed herself against me all the more and kissed my cheek. “He will make it hard for us.”
“I’m sure he will. He said he will be back maybe tomorrow or the next day. We need to make a plan.” We spent the rest of the afternoon figuring on ways to leave. With what Maria Terèsa said, Alma was right about staying out of the jungle. I suggested we travel north to the far reaches of the plateau, where the cienaga began, Alma might be far enough away from the selva’s power. Crossing the cienaga would be problematic even in the driest month. “We must wait for the time to be right.”
“Yes, quiera mia, when the time is right,” she echoed.