Thirst led me down stairs to the kitchen. I looked through the rear window as I poured a glass of mild fruit punch made of papaya and pineapple juice. I wandered into the great room that was appointed with well worn, ornately carved, dark mahogany, furniture. The red velvet upholstery was sun faded and thread bare in some places, as was the large Persian carpet. An oil painting of perhaps a nineteenth century relative in a stiff collar and formal attire, hung over the unexpected fireplace.
I was glad to find the library. The natural light from the southwest fell in a neat rectangle on the desk and the bookcases. The shelves were loosely filled. I read over the titles. All the books were quite old, some too delicate to remove without damaging their spines. Most had to do with agricultural methods, or engineering or other necessary and practical applications of specialized knowledge. I searched on and found novels, histories and philosophy books. Some books of poetry; unfortunately printed in Greek, were a testament that some ancestor had a taste for the classical.
A large hand drawn map of the estate dominated the better part of the wall facing the desk. The plateau was basically diamond shaped. At the far northern tip a narrow isthmus connected it to the Andean foothills. La cienaga or swamp lands spread south from the isthmus and covered perhaps a tenth of the plateau. A fanciful drawing of a coiled anaconda with a crown on its head, encircled and protected la cienaga. Further south a road divided the plateau right down the middle. The cacao plantation was on the right or eastern side and the western side was devoted to coffee trees.
The illustrator noted the outbuildings and streams and where la selva encroached up the eastern slopes onto the grounds and up to the walls of the hacienda.
I looked up when I heard someone enter. It was Leòn. He seemed startled to see me.
“Señor Aguila, I thought you would be resting.”
“I rested some.” He seemed more amiable.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Tell me about La Señora Alvarez.”
He bowed and took a step back. “It is not my place Señor…not my place to speak of her.” He spoke in a reverent whisper. By this time he was backing toward the door.
“Wait Leòn, tell me about El Paradiso.”
He stood up straighter and looked past me at the map. “Señor, I will gladly share what I know.”
I pointed at the slender isthmus at the top of the map. “Where does this lead?”
“To the village of Loma Libre; there are trucks and the autobus, and the road to Loja.”
“And la cienaga?”
“It is passable only a few months out of the year.”
“And the anaconda?” I asked.
“There are anaconda in la cienaga, sì. The Great One guards the path to the mountains. Only the honest and selfless and worthy may pass.”
I listened to the solemnity of his words. “Have you seen this Great Anaconda?”
“We all come to him, one day or another.”
I took in the gravity of his words. “How do you get your coffee and cacao to market?”
“During July la cienaga drains enough for the trucks to pass.”
“I see, and the Great Anaconda? Are those men transporting the coffee and cacao honest and selfless and worthy to pass?” I was a little too cheeky.
Leòn leveled his impatient gaze at me. “You white people do not understand. We pass through many worlds every day, the world we can see and the world of spirits. We are always in both worlds. For you Señor, I suggest you stay in the world you understand, and do not venture into the bigger one. If you do, you may lose your soul.”
I felt reprimanded but I kept my expression inscrutable. “No worry of that my friend. This world is quite enough for me.” I heard the clock chime seven.
“Dinner is served, señor. Please follow me.”
More of the dark mahogany furniture, the same style as the sofa and chairs graced the airy, candle lit dining room. The table was dressed in white linen with three very complete and formal place settings at the end closest to the kitchen.
Señor Alvarez sat at the head of the table. His handsome face, broad shoulders and steely eyes commanded immediate attention. His youthful looks belied that he was in his mid-fifties. Señor Alvarez looked up when he saw me in the doorway. He cleared his throat and placed his hand on Señora Alvarez’s.
She was like no other woman I had ever seen. She was true to the poem she quoted. Her blond hair cascaded down to her soft shoulders and shimmered in the candle light when she turned toward me. It was hard to tell, but she didn’t look any older than thirty. Her eyes completely enthralled me, a combination of light green heavily specked with gold. Her eyes looked so familiar, inviting and menacing at the same time.
“Señor Aguila, come join us.” El Patròn’s resonant voice filled the room.
I had not changed out of my jungle clothes and felt out of place. Both of my hosts were dressed for dinner, he in a white jacket, open shirt and gray cravat with a freshwater pearl stickpin, she in a golden, sleeveless gown that showed off her pale shoulders. I took a few hesitant steps toward them. “Thank you, Señor Alvarez. I have looked forward to meeting you for such a long time.” I approached with an outstretched hand; he had a firm grip and shook my hand with gusto.
“This is my wife, is she not she beautiful?” He made a rolling gesture with his left hand the way a magician might, “Alma, one of my dearest possessions.”
Alma flashed her eyes at me. I held back mentioning our poetic exchange earlier. “It is my pleasure Señor,” Alma said.
“The pleasure is mine.” I sat across from Alma. As soon as I did Señor Alvarez struck his wine glass with his dessert spoon.
Leòn and a native girl of maybe fifteen served the first course, a delicious squash soup. I was a little taken aback when Señor Alvarez patted and caressed the girl’s behind as she held the tureen. The girl shivered and flinched. But that was his way when it came to the help. La Señora saw, set her jaw, but remained stoic.
I didn’t have to ask but once and Señor Alvarez launched into story after story about his ancestors and the somewhat bloody history of El Paradiso. The conquistadors and missionaries systematically killed or converted and eventually pushed the indigenous people off the plateau and down into the selva. Over the centuries there were skirmishes and full-fledged battles, but it was the white man’s diseases and not the sword or crossbow that conquered the original inhabitants.
“In the mid nineteenth century the Waorani were finally stopped. They made no more attempts to fight us. A great number of them went deeper into the selva to again revel in their Pagan ways. The weaker stayed behind and accepted us as their masters. Without the threat of our workers being killed or carried off, we planted the plateau half with cacao and half with coffee.”
“Yes I saw the map in the library.” I looked from Señor Alvarez to Alma. “And how did you come to be here at El Paradiso?” Thus far Alma had been silent and only gave a cursory nod now and then when her husband spoke.
Señor Alvarez answered for her. “Alma came to me five years ago. Before my wife Julia passed away she asked for Alma to come and help. I needed someone to put things in order and take care of the house. You understand my time is spent on tending to El Paradiso, the groves, the workers and such. I have no time or inclination to run a household.” Alvarez smiled and took Alma’s hand, “It seems Venus looked down favorably. The more we were together the closer we became. Within Six months of her coming here we agreed to marry. Isn’t that right, my precious?”
“Yes, that was our agreement,” said Alma. She slowly pulled her hand away.
“Let us discuss the project. I suppose we should survey the land for the best location for the solar collector system.”
“Yes.” I was going to say more but Señor Alvarez continued.
“You know how to ride a horse, Aguila?...of course you do, what man doesn’t? We will leave at daybreak, do be ready. I want you to see El Cid, he is a beauty, black as night. A pure bred Arabian, El Cid is my second most prized possession.”
Fortunately I had done some horseback riding in my teens. “And you, Señora Alvarez, do you ride?”
Again El Patròn spoke out of turn. “Alma, no, I am afraid not. Isn’t that correct, my kitten?”
“So Aguila, tomorrow I will have Leòn wake you before dawn. Now I must attend to some unfinished business that needs my attention.” I noticed the servant girl standing just beyond the doorway, not too far from the library. Her shoulders were slumped and her head was lowered. She wrung her hands.
“Buenas noches Alma, Aguila.” I nodded my goodnight and Alma barely looked in his direction. All through dinner I did not see any smiles or feel any sympathetic intimacy that loving couples display.
After Señor Alvarez left the room he guided the reluctant servant girl into the library and closed and locked the door. Alma shuddered at her husband’s actions and she finally spoke, “I thank you for not speaking of our little tryst earlier today.”
With Alvarez gone, I could finally give her my attention. Alma was unique with her northern European coloring and blond hair. I had to smile, “I thought it best not to.” Her pupils dilated and her expression brightened. “So, shall we continue our discussion of poetry? Why a poem about the sea?”
“This plateau is like an island, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I suppose. The hills are so steep and the Rio Oscuro runs around its base, and by the map in the library I see the only other way off the plateau is through the anaconda infested cienaga.”
“There is another way, down into the selva. That is another world.”
“Yes, I had a taste of that world on my way here. The heat and mist and the insects, well, I found it uncomfortable. And at night, I must admit I found the cries and calls of the animals frightening. On our way up here we saw a jaguar. We had to stop the Land Rover to avoid hitting it. What a beautiful animal, and those eyes, why just his eyes could inspire poetry. Have you ever seen one?”
“Yes, many times.” She paused and then repeated with some curiosity, “The Land Rover?” After she digested that bit of information she continued. “Hèctor has found paw prints right here on the grounds…on more than one occasion.”
“Really?” The revelation piqued my curiosity more than my fear.
“A stare that could inspire poetry…and how do you know the Jaguar isn’t a she?” Alma smiled and her eyes sparkled.
“I don’t, do you? “
“I’m positive our Jaguar is as much a female as I am.”
“And it doesn’t frighten you that right outside your window something so fierce and beautiful might be lurking?”
She shook her head ‘no’.
“Leòn certainly was frightened. He shielded his face from the one we saw and all but ignored me for the rest of the drive back.”
“The jaguar is very powerful and sacred to his people. They believe each of us has a spiritual connection to a certain animal.”
“Quite interesting,” I recounted what Leòn said earlier when we were in the library how a man such as myself should not venture into the spirit world. “And you, Alma, what do you believe?”
“Anything might happen on this plateau or in the selva below.”
“Does it frighten you?”
“At first I was frightened.”
“Let me start at the beginning. Julia, Hèctor’s wife was my cousin. Julia and I wrote to each other quite often, once a month. She described El Paradiso as just that, an enchanting paradise. After years of writing, the letters stopped for three or four months. I finally received a brief note from Hèctor. Julia contracted some fatal jungle fever. Hèctor wrote that Julia’s dying request was for me to come and put things in order and to meet him. I had never met Hèctor before and only knew him through photographs and the letters. I had just finished my master’s degree and to be honest, I wanted to have an adventure. I chose to come.
“Like you, I came via the Rio Oscuro and up the mountain road. That was before the rock slides made the road impassable for vehicles. The plateau is a beautiful place, although at first I wasn’t so taken by it. The hacienda is a little dilapidated, but has its old world charm. There is something magical about the sun though, the way it rises out of the rolling mist that pours up from the selva, the way the birds announce the sun’s arrival.”
“I look forward to seeing the sunrise. “ The clock struck nine. “You said ‘at first’.”
“Yes, at first. I felt an obligation to Julia’s memory, and to be honest, I felt sorry for Hèctor. I put all of Hèctor’s affairs in order. The house was in shambles, nothing had been tended to for almost a year. He was still grieving; he even called me Julia a few times. My cousin and I both have blond hair and pale complexions, so I could see how I must have reminded him of her.”
I poured more of the ruby red wine for both of us. “What made you fall in love?”
Alma paused and took a deep breath before she answered. “We make dire decisions when we feel we have no choice,” Alma said coolly. She took a drink of wine.
“And, sometimes when we do have a choice. I would give my soul to change some of my choices,” I said, thinking about my self-disappointment for having had that affair with Sylvie, and even now still thinking of her, loving and hating her at the same instance and knowing she couldn’t care less. Even at the very moment when we were in that phone booth I knew I had no business going through with it. I should have been stronger; every outcome is of one’s own doing. It was disheartening to face my true character.
“Don’t say that,” Alma said with surprising urgency. As an afterthought she smiled and continued, “Don’t we all wish we could change, go back and do things differently?”
“Hasn’t love found its way here?”
“Love? Love is like truth; both are open to one’s interpretation. Hèctor believes he loves me and that I love him.”
“Spoken like a true poetess.” I savored the irony how Alvarez’s love story was so much like mine.
“Señor Aguila, what is your Christian name? You know mine.”
“My name is Emilio. And yes, I have to agree, love is very subjective.” After an awkward lull I asked, “So, you have been here for five years?”
“Yes. Those first six months were quite exciting. Hèctor was very appreciative. It gave me a good feeling to help him get over his grief. He allowed me to re-organize the hacienda as I liked. During that time I made the place my own. It was wonderful having a staff to do the work. I was given Julia’s horse, Athena. I had never ridden before and Hèctor was right there with an encouraging word and hand.
“One day we rode all morning. The mist swirled around and above us as we made our way to the center of the plateau. Dark clouds blew in. A clap of thunder spooked my horse. Athena threw me and then ran off. A blinding rain fell hard and fast. A fierce wind came down from the Andes and bent the trees. Hèctor dismounted and quickly ran to me. I was so silly. I was stunned and my shoulder hurt but when he picked me up I kept my eyes closed and pretended to be unconscious. I suppose I could have walked, but I wanted to be carried. I wanted to feel his arms around me.
“He was so strong; he picked me up and fought against the wind and rain to a nearby outbuilding. He kicked the door open and gently laid me down on the dirt floor. Our clothes were dripping wet. The rain pounded on the tin roof.
“I can guess what happened next.”
“Not what you think. After the rain stopped, Hèctor collected Athena and tied her to his saddle, set me on El Cid and mounted behind me and held me in his arms all the way to the hacienda. He had the kitchen girls heat water and fill the bath tub. It was late afternoon. I remember hearing the clock strike five. He sent away the staff. It was surreal. I felt like a little girl standing there in front of him. I let him undress me and help me into the tub. As I sat there in the warm water he took the soap and washcloth and washed away the dirt and mud and little bits of twigs and grass. Hèctor was very careful when he saw the bruise on my shoulder. Then he washed my hair, it was heavenly. His strong hands felt so soothing and gentle. When the bath was over he helped me out of the tub, and dried me with a wonderfully soft towel and then helped me put on his white, terry cloth bath robe.”
“We ate our dinner and acted as if what just happened was commonplace. I felt no embarrassment or shame about being naked in front of him, allowing him to take care of me as if I were a child felt so natural. Julia never mentioned this gentle and caring side of her husband. Then I understood why she loved it here so much. Julia must have been his world. When they left El Paradiso on vacations, she always sent me a postcard.” Alma leaned in, “I have to admit at times I was jealous.”
“Do you think that is why you chose to come here?”
“Perhaps in part, as I said earlier, I wanted an adventure. My plan was to stay here just long enough to help out and put things in order, maybe three or four months and return to San Diego, California. That is where my friends and college connections were. I didn’t want to be away too long. I had three very good job prospects for college positions and recommendations from my professors.”
“What made you stay?”
“Something happened to me that day out on the plateau. The darkening sky, the silver clouds, the roll of thunder, the birds that darted about looking for cover, the way the lighting lit up the sky, even the way the grass hissed and rippled before the wind, all of nature was in a truly glorious concert of color and sound and smell and sensation and I became one with it. I’d never felt that way before about anything or anybody.
“All of my reading and studying was just that. I realized I was a cliché, one of those ivory tower types, sitting in my little cubby looking down on life, not really aloof, more frightened than anything. This yearning must have been in my sub-conscious all along. Why else would I have this urge…no… more of a need to ‘have an adventure’? And here it was, all around me.
“A handsome, strong and self-reliant man, the master of El Paradiso kneeling next to me in that outbuilding, the door had blown open. He put those strong arms around me and we watched the storm. I didn’t want the moment to end. From that day on I was spellbound in Hèctor’s presence. I think he knew it too. But I couldn’t seem to help myself. That frightened me somewhat. The practical part of me wanted to leave and this new and aware part of me wondered what life would be like in this beautiful place. But I couldn’t decide.
“When I was alone I had resolve. I had obligations back home, a hundred reasons to leave. And Hèctor, he was not in the least bit of a hurry to have me. I wanted him to. I wanted to make love to him in the worst way. I wanted to be devoured and to be left broken. Then, I would have a reason to hate him, a reason to hate this place, a reason to leave.” Alma shook her head in disbelief, I can only imagine, at her naïveté.
“It was torture. He would be gone away on the plateau for three or four days at a time. All I could do was think of him. I even dreamt about him. I doubt he even knew how I suffered when he was away. I was left all alone. I ate alone, I slept alone. I even packed my bags once and was going to demand to be taken to Loja.
“Then I would see his shadow in the doorway and my resolve would melt away and my hundred reasons to leave would turn into a hundred reasons to stay. I ran to him like a little girl and hugged him and put my cheek on his chest. He would say something like, ‘Ah, I see you missed me,’ and give me a little sideways hug and a brushing kiss on my forehead, then go off to his study until dinner. The casual way he acted left me so frustrated.” Alma shivered with disgust.
“I waited to hear from the colleges about the instructor’s positions. I told Hèctor that when I was hired I would leave. Of course the only correspondence came and left by mail and Leòn would go to the outpost by the Rio Oscuro maybe once a month. After three months I heard from two of the colleges. I received the news I had been passed over. I also received three bits of correspondence from my student loan holder. The first letter stated my loan payments were due. The second was my installment book and the third was a letter informing me I was already three payments behind and the late fees added up to a thousand dollars. I didn’t tell him my parents co-signed and used their house for collateral.
“Hèctor was very sympathetic when I told him I was passed over by the two universities. I daren’t mention my student loans. He even showed some uncharacteristic affection by taking my arm in his while we took our after dinner stroll. Our relationship was intimate but not physical.
“I held out hope. I hadn’t heard from the University of Santa Barbara. Doctor Carver, the head of the English Department assured me I was the winning candidate and to just be patient. I would receive all of the paper work in due time. The position would open in seven months. I was patient.
“So, I spent my time running the hacienda. Being the Patròna made me feel good. That’s what they called me, ‘Patrònita’. Leòn and the kitchen girls were glad to have some direction. I dabbled at writing poetry, produced some very terrible water colors that Hèctor was kind enough to compliment. I took horseback rides. I even ventured down the path a little ways into the selva. Two more months passed. I still hadn’t heard from the university.”
“Why didn’t you use the HAM radio?” I remembered Alvarez mentioned he had one in one of his letters.
“We have no radio, none that I know of.”
I gave a thoughtful nod and decided to not pursue it. “I must be mistaken.” I wasn’t mistaken. I saw it with my own eyes. I smiled my concern away.
Alma continued, “I never heard. I had written quite a few letters, to Doctor Carver, and my parents, none of which were answered. I was desperate to know. Hèctor reminded me that, “Things are much slower in the selva. A letter may take two weeks just to reach a village and another two weeks to reach a post office and another two weeks to reach the United States.
“I begged Hèctor to take me to Loja so I could get in touch with the university. After two weeks he finally did. We took that dangerous road down to the outpost and spent four very long days on the Rio Oscuro and then by autobus to Loja. We stayed in the best hotel, of course in separate rooms. The next morning I called the university. I spoke to Dr. Carver. He told me he had sent two letters that I was given the position. He waited for ten weeks to hear back. He assumed I was hired by another university, so the next candidate was awarded the position.”
I filled both of our glasses with wine.
“I was so disappointed. After I hung up I fell on the bed and cried. I didn’t even know why I was crying. If I were back home, I would just shrug it off and apply for work at other colleges. But here, so many thousands of miles away, I felt so helpless. Hèctor was in the next room, I’m sure he heard me crying. He knocked on the door. He was the last person I wanted to see. But when he came in I turned over, looked up with teary eyes and reached my arms up to him.
“I wanted to blame him, but I couldn’t. I was the one who couldn’t make up my mind. I could have left months before, but I didn’t. He was the reason I stayed on. I stayed. I stayed because the beauty of El Paradiso was so intoxicating and because of the way I felt when Hèctor was near.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head. “I don’t know why I felt the way I did. The man was only nine years younger than my father. But he was so strong and smart and handsome and honorable, and intellectual in his own original way, he was temptation itself. I closed my eyes and took his hand and pressed it against my cheek. ‘I lost my position at the university,’ I told him.
“Hèctor sat on the bed and gently stroked my hair. ‘Now, now, it can’t be that bad. Is there anything I can do to help, my dear?’ he asked. As I look back, his demeanor was overly sympathetic. In a fit of frustration and self-pity I confessed that my student loans amounted to over seventy thousand dollars and losing my position just made things worse. That I should have left months ago and secured my place at the university and that my parent’s home might be at risk. By then, I was sobbing like a little girl.
“And if you were free of your debt? What would you do? How would you live your life?” he asked.
“I didn’t know what to say. The thought was so novel, so alien to the life I’ve lived to that point.”
The clock struck ten. “And?” We both took a drink of wine.
“He offered to free me of my loans, if I would marry him. I was dumbstruck. I really hadn’t considered any other future than returning to America and working at the university. But losing my position brought things in focus. I had prepared myself for a life that now had a questionable purpose. I was in debt over my head all because I was as romantic as the poems I loved so much. I envy you Emilio, being an engineer you deal with the concrete, you deal with practicality. What you do matters. I had to evaluate everything I had done up to that point in my life. What would a career in academia really mean? I would be no more than a guide pointing people in the direction of nineteenth century American poetry and hoping they would be inspired by such a narrow and antique view of the human condition. ”
“Alma please, poetry is timeless… I take it Señor Alvarez paid off your loans.”
She nodded, “At that moment I felt so desperate and confused. I had no money to speak of, no one other than Hèctor to turn to. Hèctor had paid for my plane ticket. I was so disappointed and angry at myself for losing my position. There was definitely something between Hèctor and myself, but I could never define it. As for marriage, I hadn’t even thought myself ready for that. I had an idea it was going to be some kind of heady, whirlwind thing with a lot of flowers and spontaneity and incredible love making, with a…with a much younger man. But Hèctor had always been so kind and considerate and helpful. And when he offered to be so generous…I should have been elated, but I felt what a feral animal must feel when it succumbs to its hunger and humbly eats from its benefactor’s hand.
“Yes, he was true to his word. Later that day we went to El Banco Commercial de Loja. I sat next to Hèctor in the bank manager’s office. Hèctor told Señor Jordan that he wanted to send a draft to my loan holder for seventy thousand dollars. Even though I knew what he was going to do, it still made my heart flutter and took my breath away.
“Señor Jordan glanced at me when I gasped. He narrowed his gaze and pursed his lips. ‘That is a sizable amount, Señor Alvarez,’ said the banker. Señor Jordan looked at me more closely and subtly shook his head in judgement and pursed his lips even more. ‘Are you positive, señor?’ Hèctor gave the bank manager a hard, cold look. Jordan cleared his throat, ‘As you wish Señor Alvarez, as you wish.’ Señor Jordan took documents from his desk drawer and laid them out. My heart was racing. I held my hands together and pushed them against my legs to stop them from shaking. Hèctor looked over to me and smiled and signed his name. I had to sign the documents as well. There were so many places. I didn’t even read them. I signed on the lines as Jordan pointed them out. Finally, it was done.”
Alma absently twisted her wedding ring. “The rest of the day I was in shock. Hèctor suggested we have lunch. I don’t even remember the restaurant or what we had. You’d think a bride would remember everything about her wedding day. Well, Hèctor called an old friend who happened to be a judge. We went to his office and there were more papers to sign. I was still in shock. I didn’t even look to see that one of the documents was a pre-nuptial agreement giving me no claim to El Paradiso. The judge married us that afternoon. And, here we are five years later.”
We finished our wine. I yawned.
“Oh you poor man, here I’ve been rambling on, I’m sorry.”
“You’re forgiven. Are there any other families on the plateau? Other people like us?”
“No. You are the first person I’ve talked with other than Hèctor or the staff in months. Two or three times a year, when the cienaga is passable, the buyers and their wives come to visit for a few weeks. It is pleasant. The men drink their brandy or talk about coffee and cacao. We women have our wine. The wives tell me all the fashion news and they talk about their families. It’s strange, I have very little in common with any of them, but they’re just being here, just being able to talk to another person, hear another voice.”
“It must get lonely for you here.” The second I said that I regretted it. I didn’t want to insinuate or suggest anything improper. After my experience with Sylvie, that was going to be the last thing I wanted to do.
We both looked when Hèctor entered the room. “Ah, my precious, and you Aguila, still at it I see. My dear, there will be more time to spend chatting with our guest. And Aguila, I had Leòn unpack your belongings and put them away in the dressing chest and armoire. I see you are a lover of poetry.” He glanced at Alma, “A kindred spirit has been blown to your shore. Come along my kitten; and Aguila get your rest, we have an early day tomorrow.”
I was temporarily speechless. I thought it quite an intrusion on my privacy for his man to go through my belongings. I held back my ire and nodded to my host, then turned to his wife, “Alma, it was a pleasure talking with you. I look forward to discussing poetry. One of my favorite poets is Marietta Holley, do you know her?”
“Quite well.” Alma held back a smile and joined Señor Alvarez. I finished my wine and waited until I heard their bedroom door close before I went to my room. My books and manuals and charts were stacked on the dressing chest. Leòn neatly folded and put my clothing away. What few clothes that needed to be hung were in the armoire. I no longer felt so violated. After all, I was a guest in this man’s house and who was I to question his manners and habits?
I was tired and the wine was having the effect I wanted it to. I undressed, blew out the kerosene lamp and crawled under the netting. The cool sheets felt wonderful against my skin.
I listened to the insects and frogs and other night noises that rose up from the selva in a shrill, cyclical chorus. The milky glow faded and then brightened as the clouds passed between my window and the moon. I closed my eyes, and was just about to slip into sleep when I heard a loud thump outside the door that lead to the balcony. I opened my eyes and sat up. I heard a deep, hollow ratcheting sound followed by labored, guttural exhalations. Something big was out on the balcony. My heart raced. A dark shadow flashed across the window, landed on the railing and was gone.
I got out of bed and went out onto the balcony. Under the bright moonlight, in the mist shrouded yard below, I saw a jaguar and I also saw a naked woman standing very close to the animal. Both looked up and gave me long curious stares and headed off, stopped and turned back and looked at me again before they entered into the jungle thicket that met the edge of the plateau. I strained to see them, but they had disappeared.
The French doors to Hector’s and Alma’s bedroom also lead out onto the balcony. I looked in and saw them both in bed, asleep. I wondered if I should disturb them with what I saw, or thought I saw. I went back inside my room and locked the door. I thought better of telling Hèctor and Alma and went back to bed.