“Aguila, wake up…wake up.” I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder shaking me. “Wake up, man.”
I opened my eyes. It was Alvarez. The dawn sky was a dusty gray that faded into a glowing soft orange that clung just above the horizon. “Señor Alvarez, what is it?” My back hurt. I yawned several times and wiped the sand from my eyes.
“Get dressed, there is coffee and poached eggs waiting in the kitchen.”
I sat up and swung my legs off the sofa. I rubbed the small of my back and stretched.
“What are you doing sleeping down here anyway?” The morning light reflected off his pistol and sparked a glint in his eyes.
“I really don’t know.” I rubbed my cheeks with the palms of my hands trying to wake up, then raked my fingers through my hair. I just then noticed he held a rifle, butt down, close against his leg. I looked closer and then up at him.
He lifted the weapon away from his hip by the very tip of the barrel. He must have read my curiosity. “It’s the Enfield. We’re going hunting, you and I.”
“Why? I said I’m not much of a hunter.”
“I want to see what you are made of. After all, my proxy offspring will share half of your traits. You owe me that, don’t you think, my friend?”
I wanted to tell him to go to hell but I thought better of it. “Hunting it is… my friend.” I added those last two words out of spite. I pulled on my pants and shirt, my socks and boots. I met Alvarez in the kitchen. He had laid the Enfield across the table and was working the slide bolt. It opened with a little difficulty. He had a rag and a small oil can. He dusted off the barrel and the wooden stock.
“Like I said, it’s old but quite formidable.” Alvarez looked up at me. “You know how to use this?”
I nodded, and spoke with a bit of impatience, “Of course I’ve fired a rifle before.” It was true. Once, when I was a boy visiting my uncle’s farm. He had a Marlin .22 caliber rifle. We shot at a target. It was a novelty for me; I wasn’t too bad of a shot either.
“Good.” He opened a ragged little pasteboard box and handed me two cartridges. The brass cases were dull and pitted, and the lead tips were covered with grainy, white oxidation. “I don’t think you’ll need any more than those two.” He pushed the Enfield toward me and took his pistol from its holster and laid it on the table in front of him. The iridescent blue revolver was huge and well kept. He removed the six, bright and shiny cartridges and put them in a little line, picked up each one and wiped them down with the oily rag and reloaded and spun the cylinder.
“Ever killed anything, Emilio?” He picked up the pistol and looked it over. Hector sighted down the barrel.
“Nothing of consequence.” I said coolly. I left my answer open to interpretation. “Pass the rag, Hector.” He did, I picked it up and dabbed at the bolt and cleaned out the breech. I motioned he pass the oil can. I added more oil to the rag. Somehow I pressed the right little lever and the bolt came out. I looked down the barrel. “This thing is filthy…I’m surprised…” I shook my head and placed the rifle down on the table, tossed the rag down in disgust and crossed my arms. “I can’t use that rifle, it’s a danger.” I picked up the two cartridges and tried to wipe the oxidation off the lead tips. “And this ammunition is most likely unsafe as well.”
“Hum…I see you know something about rifles. Good.” He holstered his pistol and stood. “Let’s go.”
I sipped at my coffee. “When I finish…if you don’t mind, Hector.” He gave me a curious look, smiled and sat back down. “Of course, finish…take your time. That is the only thing we truly have, is time.”
“Yes, you are correct. Tell me, have you seen any signs of the animal that killed El Cid, was in fact a jaguar?”
“Foot prints. There were claw marks on the tree next to the stables. I can only think the beast was clever enough to enter through the transom above the door.”
“Interesting.” I leaned back in the chair. I was in no hurry to leave the kitchen. I would be out on the plateau with a man who so eagerly gave me permission to sleep with his wife, and for all of his pseudo-sophistication could not control his jealousy or his temper. I was beginning to think Hector might be a bit mad. “If I don’t have a rifle, how could I be of any help on a hunt?”
“You said you wanted to go back to the cienaga. I could take you there.”
‘And leave me there,’ I thought. “Yes, I said I’d like to see the place again.”
“In that case, we will do that today. Come along, Aguila, we should be there in a few hours. We can discuss your other project on the way.”
I finished my coffee and we left the compound. Alvarez waited until I put on my safety belt and we headed down the road at a leisurely pace.
The mist swirled away from the jeep in little eddies and as we traveled, and the sky became a bit brighter in spite of the perpetual overcast. Neither one of us said anything for the first ten minutes. When we were beyond sight of the hacienda, Hector asked, “How goes the project with Alma? I saw you last night, I told you I approve, but, I must tell you, seeing you to engage in sex did raise my ire. I told myself, what you and Alma are doing is for the greater good of El Paradiso and me. You’ll be gone soon enough, won’t you? I’m sure my ego is strong enough to stand up to you.”
I thought for a long few seconds before I answered. “Yes Hector, as per your instructions, my project involving Alma is progressing. Although discussing it in detail might only upset you. I know it would me. I will tell you this, we are getting along and I must admit it has become a pleasurable diversion as you said it would.”
“Yes, my wife is a very beautiful woman. I find it ironic, that through her machination she has trapped herself here.”
“Meaning?” I had a good idea, but I wanted to hear it from him.
“She is drawn to the selva. She has become a slave to it and to that dream world she enters. Her and her ayahuesco tea. That mumbo-jumbo is for the savages.”
“So you know about that? The tea.”
“Oh yes, my friend. I know all about the tea, and what it can do to a person’s mind and body.” He quickly glanced at me for a reaction and then back to the road.
“Really?” I nodded at his revelation.
We drove on and approached the cacao trees. “Where are the workers?”
“Everyone is busy with the coffee. We may stop on the way back. I’m not sure yet… so, you think Alma is a beautiful woman, yes?”
Back to that. “Yes.”
“It is very easy to fall in love with a beautiful woman, is it not?”
“Yes it is.”
“Now, you are not so foolish to fall in love with another man’s wife are you?”
Now I knew he suspected what I had hoped to hide. I shook my head, ‘no.’
“Good, that is all I wanted to know.” Alvarez visibly relaxed and sped up.
It took us about two hours to arrive at the cienaga and another half an hour locate the land bridge. I looked for a few reference points so I could remember the way.
Hector stopped the Jeep. I hopped out and headed toward the wet outreaches of the swamp.
“Aguila, wait for me. In fact don’t take a step further. Alto amigo, hay arena movediza. You don’t want to sink up to your waist in quicksand, do you?”
I immediately stopped. “No, I certainly don’t.”
In a moment Alvarez was standing next to me. “You see that stack of rocks?” He pointed further along the animal path. I saw two, knee high stacks of rocks about three meters apart. Alvarez told me the rocks were erected to mark where the rock shelf began on this side of the cienaga. Quick sand, under the waist-deep water’s surface spread out on either side of the rock shelf. I could see the moss covered granite where the swamp scum parted here and there. “And, it’s fairly level?” He nodded.
“And the trucks that transport the cacao and coffee are able to drive on the rock shelf all the way to the other side?”
“Yes, in July. The water level much lower. You can’t see it for the reeds, but there is a stone cause way that one of my ancestors had built on the other side of the cienaga.”
Alma and I couldn’t wait until July. “Is the water deep enough to transport the materials on a raft?”
“Some places yes, and other places, no. Marsh grass that grows in tall clumps would make water transport quite difficult. I’d say almost impossible. And I can tell you from experience, the blades of grass are razor sharp.”
As I silently pondered how Alma and I could cross the cienaga, about ten meters from shore I saw a ripple in the scummy green water, coming toward us. There was no breeze. I pointed, “What do you think that is Hector?”
He chuckled, “That, Aguila, is the Great Anaconda…or at least a very big one.” He pulled out his pistol and shot twice. The snake disappeared under the water. “Have you seen enough of the cienaga and the rock shelf?”
My ears rang. Alma was right, Alvarez loved to shoot his pistol. “Did you kill it?”
“I doubt I even hit it. I’m sure I’ll have another go at it someday. If you’ve seen enough, I’ll take you back to the hacienda. I must return and supervise the coffee drying.”
I nodded and kept a deadpan expression. Inwardly I was so glad he would be away, for hopefully another few days, or at least for the rest of this one. “Yes, I can work on the materials list for the project. I will have to use the HAM radio to call it in. Yes?”
“Yes, soon we will use the radio.” We were back in the Jeep. Before he started it he gave me a cool stare, “Be done soon with the project and Alma…the sooner the better…don’t you think?”
He looked down at the pistol on his hip and then back to me
“Yes sir,” I reiterated. I returned his stare. “What makes you think I wouldn’t? She is nothing more than a pleasurable diversion. How did you put it? Look on having Alma as a pleasant part of the project. You are pleasing me, her and yourself. Señor, I am here at your request, and I have done more than what I was asked to come for. I am doing as you asked me too. Please, there is no reason to look down at your pistol and then back to me.” I was shaking inside as I spoke. I found standing up to Alvarez was much different than anything I had ever done in my life. I spoke slowly and had to control my voice from breaking.
Alvarez smiled and gave a pleased nod, “You’re completely correct, Emilio, I did invite you to impregnate Alma. Let’s hope it is soon, that’s all. Believe me, I do not want anything to happen to you, or Alma.”
I didn’t like the way he was looking at me; the way he spoke made me feel there was something ominous he was leaving out. “Now, let’s get you back to the hacienda. When you are ready with your plans and list of materials, we will go to the warehouse and use the HAM radio. Yes?”
“Yes.” Hector completely subdued me.
“You’re going to have to work harder on Alma…why, last night she begged me for it. So, of course I had to show my wife, in spite of everything, I do love her. I am certain she loves me. I took her twice. You must have awakened something in the girl. Insatiable is how I would describe her.”
My right hand curled into a fist. I quickly looked away from him and pretended I had some kind of itch on the back of my fist and vigorously rubbed it with the palm of my left hand. I had to clear my throat twice, “We are fortunate men, are we not?”
“Oh yes.” Hector spun the rear tires of the Jeep as we took off. We left la cienaga and headed back down the road past the coffee bushes and the cacao trees. The ride was bumpy and uncomfortable. If I hadn’t been wearing my safety belt, I could easily have been thrown out of the vehicle. He eventually slowed down when the hacienda was in sight. It was a little before noon. “I may be back this evening, or I may stay at one of the pueblitos.” He dropped me off and returned to the plateau.
I don’t know what is was about the man, but Alvarez exhausted me, body and soul. I entered the kitchen. Maria Terèsa was at the worktable cutting up a chicken.
“I am glad you are back, señor.”
I was too. “Gracias, yo tambien. Where is la señora?”
“Upstairs in your bed.”
“My bed?” I nodded and hurried up the stairs. It was childish, but I wished each step I took could somehow hurt Hector. The way he bragged how he violated Alma sickened me.
I threw open the door. The drapes were closed. The room was dark and I almost stumbled over a tray stand. A teapot and cup sat on the tray. I saw Alma lying there, under the netting, but on top of the covers. She was on her side with her head on my pillow. I pulled the netting back and crawled onto the bed and cradled her back against my chest. I kissed her under her ear, her favorite spot.
“Quiera mia, are you alright?” I whispered.
She did not answer. I lifted my head up to see her better. I saw those telltale little twitches and her breathing was erratic, shallow and then she would gasp for air. Her fingers trembled and the muscles in her legs quivered.
I knew enough this time not to awaken her. I crept out of bed and made my way back to the kitchen. “Maria Terèsa…la señora, she is not with us.”
“She makes the bad sleep?”
“Sì, I think so. She acts like she did the other night. The night you cast the jaguar out.”
Maria Terèsa wore a concerned look. “How? I know she did not come to the kitchen. I’ve been here all day. The only one to come to the kitchen was El Patròn, muy temprano, very early. I always make his coffee, he told me to go back to sleep. I heard him make the coffee. He made much noise, opening and closing drawers and the cupboards. I heard the water kettle whistle, too. Did you have tea, señor, this morning?”
I shook my head, “No, I had coffee with El Señor, coffee and eggs.” Maria Terèsa glanced over at the shelves and the counter tops.
“It is not here, señor.” She made it a point to look again. “La señora’s teapot is not here.”
“Come with me, Maria Terèsa. Please hurry.” I was surprised she kept up with me step for step. We entered the bedroom. I went to the window and pulled back the drapes and pointed at the tray stand. Maria Terèsa picked up the teacup and took a sip and spit it back into the tea.
“I taste guayusa and ayahuesca and lemon. La señora told me she would drink no more of the tea… to hide the tea from her.”
“Someone found it. It wasn’t Alma, or you, or me…maybe Leòn?”
She shook her head, ‘no.’
I had the dark realization Hector made the ayahuesca tea and then disguised the flavor with the guayusa tea and lemon. The tea was cold. Alma was well on her journey.
I looked in on Alma once more, leaned over her and kissed her cheek. I was unwillingly drawn to the window. I knew what I would see as I opened the shutters and I looked down. The jaguar was there. She stopped her pacing and looked up at me, sat back on her haunches and cleaned her paws. I didn’t look away. “Maria Terèsa, please come here,” I whispered, “look.” I felt the old woman at my shoulder.
“What is it, señor?” she whispered.
“You don’t see it? The jaguar?” I pointed.
She shook her head, ‘no,’ and shrugged her shoulders. “She comes only for you and la señora. You must face it, you must face it without any doubt. There is nothing the jaguar can do to you that you don’t allow her to. Remember the jaguar cannot hurt your body. Are you ready to find la señora and save her?”
She didn’t answer, only filled the teacup and wagged her head toward the door. I followed Maria Terèsa down the stairs and out to the veranda. I sat on the swinging bench. She handed me the teacup.
“Drink it all señor, so you will be ready when Leòn comes.”
“Leòn?” I took a sip of the tea. I felt a burning sensation when I swallowed. The tea wasn’t at all hot, it was more like a spicy aftertaste.
After the first few swallows it wasn’t too bad. All the time I drank Maria Terèsa gave an encouraging nod. Just as I finished, Leòn came through the rear gate and headed toward the veranda. He greeted me with a nod and said something to Maria Terèsa in Quechuan. She nodded and showed him the empty cup.
It wasn’t too long before I had a sour stomach. I felt bloated and then nauseous. I began to shiver and then I retched. Leòn gave me support. My eyes watered a bit and my heart started to pound. I became more nauseous. I had trouble catching my breath.
“Señor, you must lose all doubt in yourself, then you will find the truth. Señor, be calm, and accept what will happen to you. I will help you.”
Leòn handed me a piece of vine. “Hold on to this, do not let go.”
I saw a halo around Leòn, my hand and the vine. I could see the intricacies and every minute detail of the vine, down to the tiny rhizomes. I relaxed completely and closed my eyes.
Leòn chanted in a falsetto and shook some kind of soft rasping rattle. Maria Terèsa sat next to me on the swing. She took my hand and whispered in my ear, “He draws away the darkness so you can see.”
Leòn’s chant became a rainbow ribbon of sound that snaked its way through the air and encircled my head, and rose and fell with the timbre of his voice. I smelled something acrid, smoke I think, and warmth spilt on different parts of my head and face. I relaxed to the point that my head bobbed back.