Our wait was over. Alma and I had finished breakfast. She went on a walk. She told me she wanted to make a mental portrait of the hacienda and the places we went to picnic and make love. I was in the library putting together my estimate and proposal.
I heard the distinct sound of the Jeep. I heard the door open and clap shut and Hector’s gruff voice. He asked Maria Terèsa something. He repeated it loudly, “Where are they?” he all but yelled.
I left the library and came to Maria Terèsa’s rescue. ”Señor, you are back. It is good to see you.” I held out my hand to shake his.
Hector jerked his head in my direction, he looked at my outstretched hand and with an incredulous shake of his head said, “Aguila, yes, yes, hello. Where’s Alma?” He looked beyond me.
“I think she went for a walk. I have your proposal ready in the library. Would you like to go over it?”
He shook his head and looked around the room. “Later.” He left the kitchen, walked through the great room and by the sound of his footfalls I could only imagine he went upstairs. I heard doors open and slam and Alvarez called Alma’s name several times. He came back down to the kitchen.
“Where is she? And tell me the truth.” He was obviously agitated.
“I told you, she went for a walk.”
“Where?” His lips were drawn into an impatient pout.
“Well, I know she didn’t go to the selva. I think to the meadow a little north of here, the meadow where the big mahogany trees are.”
He seemed satisfied with that answer. Alvarez headed toward the kitchen door. I was afraid for Alma. “Mind if I go?”
“Yes,” he snapped. “Don’t you spend enough time with my wife as it is?” His eyes took on a steely glint.
His demeanor concerned me. “I meant nothing by it. I thought we could discuss the project. I haven’t talked with you about it for a few days, and I put some numbers together for you.”
Again he snapped. “No…” his temper subsided and he spoke calmly and with control, he even managed to give me that patronizing, reptilian smile, “no, no Emilio. We can discuss that later. After I collect my wife.” He had completely calmed down. He leaned in closer and spoke apologetically, “Can’t a man miss his wife? Eh? I’m just concerned about her. She is well, sì?” He opened the door and stepped outside.
I followed. “Yes sir, she seems in good health.”
His question puzzled me. I didn’t know how to answer. I hesitated.
“She’s not happy?”
“That…that is something you will have to ask her. She doesn’t seem unhappy.”
“Well, you would know,” he said sarcastically. Alvarez took a not-so-playful jab at my shoulder. He raised his eyebrows in surprise when I pulled away from his fist and he missed. “Just as long as you don’t make her too happy. Eh?” he countered his flash of anger with a weak smile.
“Of course.” His comment, and false look in his eyes gave me pause.
“I know that meadow quite well,” he went on. His expression and stance quickly changed to one of slump shouldered loss. I watched him get into the Jeep and slowly drive into the mist toward the meadow. I went back inside, poured myself a coffee and sat at the round table and waited for Alvarez and Alma to return. I really didn’t know what he was going to do when he found Alma.
Maria Terèsa read my concern. She came to me. “Señor, do not worry, he will not hurt la Patrònita, but he might hurt you. The time is now.”
I knew she was right, Alma and I had to leave and soon. Alvarez no longer bothered to mask his jealousy, even though it was he who had put everything into motion. I was going to be the one he would blame if Alma became more distant than she already was. He did love Alma, or thought he did. He did not love me. I likened myself to the lucky bee that mates with the queen only to have an explosive and fatal ending.
Alma and I had to get the Jeep away from Alvarez. Walking that distance, that eighty-four kilometers to the cienaga would be out of the question.
I didn’t have time to make much of a plan. I followed the Jeep’s headlights wend a serpentine path across the open prado, and emerge from the mist. I could see Alma. Alvarez spoke to her in a quite animated manner. She sat there with her arms crossed over her chest and stared straight ahead. When the Jeep stopped she hesitated until Hector was a few steps on the path to the kitchen, then followed. I returned to my seat and feigned surprise when Hector entered the kitchen. He glared at me, poured coffee and noisily sat down, and I imagine purposely jiggled the table so a little bit of my coffee sloshed out of the cup and on to my paperwork.
“I see you’re back,” I dabbed up the spilt coffee with my serviette.
Before he answered, Alma entered and quietly closed the kitchen door. She avoided eye contact and gave a disinterested nod to me as she quietly passed by on her way to the great room and I imagine upstairs to her and Hector’s bedroom. I had to stifle my urge to greet Alma with a kiss and ask what Alvarez was so adamant about. I played my part as the cool observer and introduced a different subject. “Any luck hunting the jaguar?”
“The jaguar…no, no luck. It seems as if it has disappeared. The coffee harvest in more important, anyway. Why do you ask about the jaguar, did you want to try your hand at it?” Alvarez relaxed his shoulders and sipped at his coffee.
“Perhaps, but I would much rather discuss the project. And what would I use to shoot the jaguar with if I was lucky enough to find it?” I couldn’t believe how the conversation turned to my favor. “That old Enfield is not serviceable.”
“So clean it. I have everything you need.” There was something about his change in attitude and seeming helpfulness that didn’t seem sincere.
“But, the bullets, you have to admit they are too old.” Maybe being armed with a relic of a rifle would be more problematic than helpful.
“Oh I have bullets not more than a few years old. After you clean the rifle we can take some target practice with it; sight it in. Make sure it’s accurate.”
I found his tone a bit manipulative. Why this eagerness? “What about the project?”
He smiled when he spoke, “Oh it can wait; it can wait for another few days. Don’t you think?” He turned toward Maria Terèsa. “Find something to do outside. Go tend the garden, milk the goat…whatever.”
Maria Terèsa gave me a concerned glance and nodded to Alvarez. “Sì Patròn, I will.”
Alvarez waited until Maria Terèsa was out of the kitchen. “So, you would rather talk about the project, or even go hunting …what? Since you’ve had Alma, now you find my wife too boring for you? Not enough poetry in your lives? Eh?” His lips twisted into a bitter frown.
“Hector, what is it? I don’t understand you.“ I felt my ire rising. “You want me to sleep with your wife, I do. Then you treat me as an interloper. I came on this assignment to get away from civilization and a woman I knew I could never have. Now this. What do you want from me?” I was leaning in, close to his face.
Alvarez chuckled, crossed his arms and sat back in his chair. “So, that is El Señor Aguila. Afraid and unhappy with who he is…Eh?”
I threw my hands up in frustration. I was going to tell him how much Alma hated him, but I thought better of it at the last second. “Señor Alvarez, I fear nothing, but you are correct I was unhappy with whom I was.”
“And you are so different now?” Alvarez asked with a smug chuckle, almost as he were daring me to take a swing at him.
I’d had enough, and I spoke forcefully, “Yes, I see things differently now. I no longer have feelings for that woman.” It was true, I had no more interest in Sylvie, and if she carried my child within her, then so be it. She was the one to live with a deception for the rest of her life. I was glad to be done with her.
As for Alma, I hoped we would continue loving each other. That would be wonderful. We had been through so much, we became each other in this world and that strange world of dreams where we conquered the jaguar. We were lovers, we shared our innermost secrets, good and bad, beautiful and ugly and we still wanted to be in each other’s lives. We were more than ready to leave this awful Paradiso behind.
Alvarez’s tone changed again, now he was gushy and overly friendly. He spoke softly, secretly, so I had to lean in to hear him. “Emilio, in the library above the far left bookcase is a kit you can use to clean the Enfield. It has everything you need in it. Go get it. You can use the table out on the veranda, Alma, bless her, does not like the smell of gun oil or guns inside the house.”
I left the kitchen. When I entered the great room I automatically turned toward the staircase and wondered if I had enough time to dash upstairs and ask Alma if she was alright. I caught myself in mid-turn when I realized Alvarez was just a few steps behind me. He took the stairs. I could only guess he kept the old rifle in their room.
I continued to the library. I had to stand on the wooden step stool to reach the cleaning kit. I grabbed it, went outside to the veranda and waited at the table for Alvarez to return with the rifle. I unrolled the kit and looked over the contents.
Alvarez came out the kitchen door. He carried the rifle in one hand and a small green box in the other. His eyes were lackluster and he sighed. He put the rifle and a box of bullets on the table. “There you are, my friend. It may be old and worn, but it still can achieve its purpose. It is important to do that, don’t you think?”
I really wasn’t listening. “Think of what?”
“Purpose,” he scowled. In an instant he returned to a softer, intimate, almost apologetic tone, “we must achieve our purpose, or all of this charade is for naught.” He quickly disassembled the Enfield and lay the parts out on the table. I was only a little surprised he was so philosophical.
“So, what is your purpose, Emilio Aguila, to build little electrical systems in the jungle?”
I picked up the rifle bolt and wiped it with an oily rag. “That’s a laudable purpose, don’t you think? Help people who need electricity.”
“I’d say that’s more of a pastime. Your purpose is more than learning the tricks of a trade and preforming them.”
I hadn’t really considered my purpose in life. I suppose I could have just as easily been a civil engineer, or poet or an airplane pilot for that matter. Alvarez was correct, what someone does might satisfy the immediate needs to support themselves, but not much more. “Perhaps, but who can’t know one’s purpose, unless you assign yourself one.”
Alvarez picked up the wooden sheath that covered the top of the barrel and wiped it down with an oily rag. “Marcus Aurelius said, ‘what we do today echoes in eternity.’”
“I suppose what we do does, in a roundabout way.” I put the gun bolt down and looked into Hector’s tired eyes.
“I would say in a very direct way.” He inspected the wooden sheath he had just oiled and gently placed it on the table. “We can never truly know or understand our purpose, just live out our lives and in so doing we achieve our purpose. If only it was that simple. Hubris guides you and me to think we understand our place in time and history and how important we are. We are all brought to our knees eventually, some sooner than others.”
I was at a loss for words. How could this man, so tossed in the stormy sea of his emotional turmoil, ponder such questions? He was not as simple as Alma thought. “I suppose we all have to accept there are no real answers and really, no real questions.”
“True, very true.” I said.
Alvarez stood and tossed the cleaning rag on the table. “When you’re finished with the rifle come to the caballeriza. I have to attend to Athena. I am sure she misses El Cid, too.” As an afterthought he added, “I should take her out for a ride, I think we both need that. Get some clear air in our lungs, sì?”
I nodded. “Sì.”
“Tell my wife when she awakes I should be back by early afternoon. Maybe tomorrow we can discuss your project…and oh yes, Alma is napping,’ and added forcefully, “don’t go near her.”
“I have plenty to do.” I picked up the rifle and looked down the filthy bore. When I looked up I saw him go through the side gate that led to the stables. Alvarez stopped at the back of the Jeep and opened the cap on the spare gas can and peered in. He gave a positive nod, looked over to me and gave me the thumbs up. He replaced the cap. He went on his way.
When he was out of sight I put the rifle down and wiped the oil off my hands. I wanted to hurry to Alma but I had second thoughts and decided it best to wait until I knew he was gone for sure. The way he said, ‘don’t go near her,’ sounded like a not so veiled threat. I picked up the ramrod, attached the small, round, wire bore-brush and forced it down the barrel.
Alvarez was in no hurry, and neither was I. By the time I heard Athena gallop away, the inside of the barrel sparkled. I wiped my hands clean, went inside the house and up to my bedroom. As soon as I packed my duffle bag and suitcase I went out on the balcony and looked in the French doors. I saw Alma on the bed, her back was to me. I tapped on the glass. She didn’t move. My heart raced. I tried the knob; the door was locked. I pounded on the door frame.
Alma looked over her shoulder and sat up. She crossed her arms and kept her head lowered. I pounded again and she finally looked up.
I looked closer. Her eyes and face were red and puffy. I looked over my shoulder toward the stable and at the trail before I called out, “Unlock the door, Alma, open up.”
She finally stood and came to the door and unlocked it. When I entered she turned away.
“Quiera Mia, what happened?”
I turned Alma around to face me. Her eyes glistened with tears. She grabbed on to me and hugged. “Oh, my dearest, he is such a monster.”
“What did he do to you? Did he hurt you?” I held her at arm’s length and looked her up and down and into her frightened eyes. “Tell me.”
“No, he did not touch me.”
“Why do you cry?”
“When I carry our child he said he would kill you.” She hugged me close to her.
I wasn’t too surprised. Although I did feel a chill go through my entire body. “He actually told you this?” I hugged her back.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Collect your things. We’re leaving right now. Come to the veranda. Hurry, my love.” I kissed Alma.
She looked in a daze for a few seconds and then came back to herself. “Yes, yes, I will.”
I entered my room and picked up my suitcase and duffle bag, hurried down the stairs and out to the veranda. I should have paid more attention to Alvarez when he dissembled the rifle. After a few false starts, I finally put the Enfield back together. I worked the bolt and pulled the trigger. I was satisfied when I heard the firing pin click. I put one bullet into the breach and closed the bolt and loaded the five bullet clip and inserted that as well.
I looked up when I heard Alma close the kitchen door. She had carried all of her things in a straw bag. She moved slowly and looked from left to right as if trying to take everything in for the last time. After all, this had been her home for the last six years.
We tossed our belongings in the back of the Jeep. The keys dangled from the ignition. We seated ourselves. Alma became very quiet, almost sullen.
“We’ll be free of this place and on the other side of the plateau by sundown.” I started the Jeep. I looked over the gauges. We had a half a tank of petrol. I didn’t know where Alvarez had gone on his ride, but even if we crossed paths the Jeep could certainly outrun him. “Have you been to la cienaga, before?”
Alma was a little distant, “Yes, three or four times.”
I thought she would be more excited about finally leaving El Paradiso, getting away from Alvarez and returning to her home in America. She sat slump shouldered with her clasped hands in her lap.
We sat there with the Jeep idling while it warmed up. “Are you having second thoughts?” I asked.
She shook her head ‘no.’ “I’m afraid, Emilio.” She reached out and took my hand, closed her eyes and laid her head against my shoulder.
“Don’t be afraid, sweetheart.” I stroked her hair and gave her a gentle kiss on her forehead. “We can do this.”
“I’m afraid for you, Emilio, I’m afraid he’s waiting for us.”
She might be right. The keys being in the ignition, him making sure I had extra petrol, and even telling Alma his plan to kill me when she became pregnant, it was all too easy. “Let’s hope not. But why would he make sure I had the rifle?”
“His ego. His fight with you must be fair. He cannot just shoot you down.”
“Why do you say that, how do you know?”
“He told me, so I would be sure to tell you.” Alma sat up straight and took a deep breath.
“I will fight for us.” I felt strong and proud of myself, but I also felt small and frightened. He could be behind any tree or boulder, waiting.
I put the Jeep in gear and we drove off. The mist was heavy and the light from the headlamps reflected back into my eyes. I could barely make out the road ahead and couldn’t drive more than twenty kilometers per hour because of the poor visibility and the ruts and pot holes. We drove for a half an hour traveling maybe six of seven kilometers. At this rate it would take us the better part of the day to reach the cienaga and the land bridge to the Andes.
We finally reached the beginning of the cacao grove and the mist lightened a bit. I was able to drive a decent speed. After we passed the warehouse the sun had broken through the mist. Billowing clouds scudded across the azure sky. We passed a few deserted pueblitos.
“The indios are working the coffee,” said Alma.
I nodded and wondered how we would get past Alvarez, the sound of the Jeep could be easily heard quite a distance away. My only thought was to drive as fast as possible and even if Hector heard us he could never catch us. “Hold on,” I told Alma.
After a few kilometers of hard driving I saw Hector on Athena galloping obliquely toward the road. Fortunately we were moving fast enough that our paths would not intersect. We were over a hundred meters further along when Alvarez finally reached the road and the gap widened further.
I didn’t know for sure if it was merely an errant sliver of silver sunlight I saw reflected in the mirror or if Alvarez was insane enough to take a shot at me with his pistol. The Jeep’s engine and the rush of the wind was too loud to hear over. I watched and saw the muzzle flash of his .357 Magnum and was convinced that indeed was what I saw. I hunkered down over the steering wheel as if that would make me that much smaller of a target and signaled to Alma to do the same.
When he was no more than a speck in the mirror I slowed a bit and looked at the fuel gauge when I felt the engine chug and knock and ping. The needle pointed to empty, we were out of petrol and we had another twenty odd kilometers to go. I looked over my shoulder at the red fuel can and pulled to a stop.
The can had U.S. Army stamped on its side and that it held five gallons. I was sure that amount of petrol would certainly be enough to get us to the land bridge.
“This won’t take but a minute, quiera mia.” I hopped out and made my way to the back of the Jeep. I looked down the road and was glad that Alvarez wasn’t in sight. I undid the latch and lifted the fuel can out of its holder. My heart sank at how light it was. I noticed the bullet hole. We had lost almost all the fuel. I did not say anything to Alma. I carefully attached the nozzle and poured what was left into the tank. I almost left the gas can there but thought better of it. If Alvarez saw it he would know we might not have enough fuel to make it to la cienaga.
“That didn’t take very long,” said Alma. She too, looked over her shoulder at the road behind us.
“No, let’s hope we have enough fuel to make it.” I started the Jeep and we kept a slow steady speed. After a few minutes Alma looked over to me.
“Emilio, why are we going so slow?” Her brow furrowed in puzzlement.
“There wasn’t as much petrol as I thought. One of Hector’s bullets hit the gas can. We lost almost all of the petrol.”
She gasped, “He shot at us?” Alma said in disbelief. She sat back in the seat and hugged herself. “Oh Emilio, we must go on and pray there is enough petrol to make it. He may try to kill us both.”
The rows of coffee bushes and cacao trees flickered by more slowly than we wanted them to. The petrol gauge needle pointed just above empty. I wanted to go faster but I didn’t want to use any extra fuel and actually the road was in worse shape than I remembered.
We went on for another hour. I figured we were within seven or eight kilometers from the wet marshy lands that bordered la cienaga. I was driving at maybe ten kilometers an hour. I was heartened when I saw the tire tracks from several days before. My elation, if that was what you could call it, was short lived. We hadn’t gone another half a kilometer when the motor began to sputter. We ran out of petrol.
Alma was out of the Jeep before I was. She rummaged through her straw bag and took out two things. A favorite book of poetry and a bottle of water. I didn’t have the forethought to bring any provisions. The only thing I took was my book of poetry. Carrying my suitcase and duffle bag was out of the question. I slung the rifle strap over my shoulder and slipped my and Alma’s books under my shirt. I told her to be on the lookout for those two stacks of stones that defined the boundaries of the rock shelf we would be walking on.
We kept up a brisk pace for forty minutes or so. It was warmer than I thought it would be. There were no trees to shade us. It was also quite humid and sweat poured off both of us. We had to slow our pace. Finally, not wanting to risk heatstroke we stopped when a bank of clouds pushed its way between us and the sun.
We sat right there on the ground cross legged, panting. Alma’s face and neck and arms were high pink. The sun poured down on us. My temples and forehead pounded with each beat of my heart. Neither one of us had a hat. I pulled our poetry books from under my shirt and we held them over our heads for what little shade they gave.
The slightest of breezes came up. The cool air coming down off the foothills was a godsend. The breeze strengthened into a blustery display rippling the grass and making the low shrubs sway. Some of the mist tumbled along the ground but most rose into the sky, mingled and merged with the warm, moist air from the selva and added to the tall billowing clouds. The underside of the clouds glowed deep orange laced with black and the heat immediately became oppressive.
We looked at each other and both stood up. We were in the open and a thunderstorm was minutes away. We had nowhere to go except to move on. She took my hand, and though we weren’t completely rested we hurried on. Lightning flashed in the tumbling clouds above. The tympanic thunder rolled through the air. We began to run alongside the tire tracks.
The rain started in big cold drops. The clouds, the sky, the way ahead of us glowed silver-gray. Lightning followed. I counted ten strikes in less than a minute. Swaying veils of dark rain moved northward toward us. The lightning left its searing path from the far horizon to less than a few hundred meters away. The rain finally came in a fierce downpour. We were immediately soaked to the skin. Our poetry books gave us little protection. I hated to see both our books fall apart and be a sacrifice to the cienaga. The going became difficult. The rain collected in yawning deep puddles that we had to slog through. A small black water snake looked up at both of us as it swam past.
We persevered as best we could in the tomenta peseda. Lightning struck behind us. I turned around and my heart sank. In the distance I saw the blurred silhouette coming toward us. It had to be Alvarez pushing Athena along. I grabbed Alma’s hand and stepped up our pace. The only solace came from the thought Hector and the horse would be slowed down as well.
The rain let up some. The water reached above our ankles. Alma pulled us to a stop. She pointed ahead. There was no mistake, she spotted the stacks of rocks that showed the entrance to the rock shelf and ultimately the land bridge. We picked up our pace, but it was like running in a dream, so slow and labored. Before I could warn her, Alma broke away and tried to approach the rock shelf by leaving the path and running diagonally before we came to the first stack. Not more than a few steps in, she was slowed by a patch of quicksand.
“Alma, stop, stop,” I called out. I approached carefully. I could feel the suction on my shoes caused by the soft mud, when I tried to reach her. Alma had already sunk to mid-calf. She twisted her trunk and looked over her shoulder at me. Her lips quivered.
“Help me, Emilio.” She frantically reached behind her.
With some effort, and not wanting to go any further in, I leaned forward. “Don’t move, lean back against me.” I hooked my hands under her arms, high on her chest and pulled her to me. “Slowly pull out your left foot,” I whispered in her ear. Thank goodness I was on the very edge of the quicksand and had somewhat a firmer footing to push against. Time was quickly ticking by, every second we were mired in the quicksand, Alvarez was getting that much closer. I pulled as hard as I could. Alma let out a cry of pain, and after an agonizing twenty or so seconds, and finally pulled her left foot out. I pulled again, I pulled so hard she fell back and landed on top of me. She got her right leg free. We were wet through and through and spattered with black, foul smelling mud, but we were free.
Holding on to each other, we stumbled back to the path. Alvarez was no more than a few hundred meters away and would be there in moments. We ran to the rock marker. In a leap of faith, holding each other’s hand, we waded out into the muddy brown water. The silty bottom pulled at my shoes. We were waste deep and staggered around jagged rocks and over small, slimy boulders before we finally came to the rock shelf.
Alvarez was telling the truth. The rock shelf was quite uneven. He didn’t mention how slippery it was. Even on the rock shelf the water came up to mid-thigh. We held on to each other to keep from slipping and falling.
“Alma, stop!” yelled Alvarez, “don’t leave.” He sat high in the saddle and used his riding crop against Athena, trying to make her enter the water. The horse whinnied and even though he forcefully reined her head toward the water she refused and began to buck. Alvarez dropped the reins and dismounted and stood on the bank of the cienaga. I guided Alma in front of me. I heard the explosive crack of his pistol and felt the air split apart as a bullet whizzed by me right cheek. We quickened our steps.
Alvarez, with his pistol in hand charged into the water after us. The rocks and muddy bottom slowed him down. He lost his balance. Alvarez fell forward and as a natural reaction put his hands out to catch himself. There was nothing there to stop his fall. The water splashed up over his shoulders and knocked his hat off. He stood up. He wiped the water away. I saw the rage in his eyes as his mouth issued his angry words, “Alma, stop this instant. Stop and come back to me” He relented and his tone was gentle, “… I…I forgive you.”
Alma tugged on my hand. We went along as fast as we could. The rock shelf leveled out and widened about fifteen meters in and the water came to just above our wastes. I looked back, Hector had clambered onto the shelf and I watched as he slipped several times and with great strength and effort regained his balance. He still held on to his .357 Magnum.
“Alma, I promise we will visit your family…I…we will find the time. Things will be different. Come back to me now. Come back before it’s too late,” he begged.
I heard Alma mutter, “It is too late, you old fool.” Again she tugged on my hand to move us along faster. After another five meters Alma abruptly stopped. “Oh my God, Look,” she gasped.
I looked over her shoulder and saw a serpentine ripple perhaps ten meters long just below the surface of the water that trailed behind a monstrously large, black, head, plated with intricate scales and the darkest and most sinister eyes I had ever seen. The shock of seeing such a beast held us fast. Time slowed as the great snake came closer and closer. Alma backed up against me. The only thing I could think to do was put my arms around her. We both trembled as the anaconda bumped its head against, first Alma’s hip and then mine as it swam, loosely coiling its massive body around us. Alma turned toward me, put her head on my chest and held me against her.
There was no escape, nowhere to go. ‘So this is how it ends,’ I thought to myself. The anaconda’s great body gently brushed against us, drawing us closer and closer. We stood there on the brink of eternity, barely breathing, my eyes were closed and the great snake, though it coiled its scaly body around us it did not tighten to more than a surreal pulsing caress.
Alma whimpered and pushed herself even closer to me.
“So, my love, you’ve decided to stop this madness. Let her go, Aguilar. Let her go now. I know she wants to come back to me and El Paradiso.” Alvarez spoke in a frantic rush. He stood there with his chest puffed out, with one hand on his hip and the other casually pointing the pistol down at the water.
The great snake uncoiled itself from our legs and swam away, hidden by the muddy waters.
“I’m not going to tell you again, Aguila. Let go of her, now!”
Alma pushed past and stood in front of me. “Don’t blame him, Hector. Emilio isn’t taking me away, we are leaving together.”
“No, you are not.” He brought the pistol up and leveled it at my head.
My heart beat so hard I thought my ribcage would explode. He had a strangely exquisite look on his face. He cocked the hammer. I could see that damn reptilian smile as he pursed his lips in concentration.
Both Alma and I gasped when we saw the great anaconda rise up out of the water behind Hector. A diadem of golden droplets splashed into the air as it quickly struck Alvarez on the neck, coiled itself around him and pulled him under the water. We could see the determined look in his eyes as he struggled to bend his wrist enough to shoot the snake. I slipped the Enfield off my shoulder, sighted on the anaconda and pulled back the firing pin. I took aim at the snake. I hesitated. If I shot, the bullet would certainly go through the snake and wound, or even kill Hector. He saw me and with all his strength he aimed the .375 magnum at me. He never got the shot off. The snake rolled under the water and took Hector with him.
Alma and I stood there stunned. It took us a moment to come back to ourselves and our predicament. Ahead, maybe another hundred and fifty meters away, we could see the stone causeway that lead out of the cienaga and to the land bridge. Further in the distance I saw the switchback road scratched into the steep, rocky hillside. A golden speck of light reflected off the windshield of an invisible vehicle and flickered along the road. That gave us hope. Wordlessly we went ahead.
Alma and I struggled over the rock shelf. At one point the water barely covered our feet and at another it was waist deep again. The blades of swamp grass cut into our clothing and arms and hands and faces. Swarms of biting insects descended on us, intent on invading our eyes and ears and nostrils. The causeway was now only fifty meters away, but it seemed like fifty kilometers. The sun hung just above the mountain skyline that cast deep hazy shadows on the foothills ahead.
With the stone causeway so close we felt an urge to rush. The rock shelf abruptly ended, and for the last ten meters, the bubbling, green, scummy water was over our heads.
“We’re so close, we’ll have to swim.´ I said to Alma.
She let go of my hand and looked into my eyes. She looked tired and we were both almost spent.
The insects visited every one of our scratches and cuts, taking their blood meal and stinging as if to add insult to injury. “We will swim, it is not so far.” She managed a tiny smile. Alma slipped out of her tattered jeans. Her low boots and socks had been lost in the mire. I would follow. I had worn heavy shorts and my legs were crisscrossed with cuts from brushing against the razor-sharp grass.
Alma looked over her shoulder at me and pushed away from the rock shelf. I took a deep breath and followed. Once in the murky water I started to do the dog paddle, I didn’t want to put my head under the water nor did I want to lose sight of the cause way. I immediately felt something or things bumping against my bare legs and where ever my shirt was torn. Whatever they were, they were small. I wanted to brush at my legs but I kept on swimming.
For some reason, each paddle I made became more and more difficult. I was getting sleepy and I felt tired. Alma also was doing the dog paddle. I came abreast of her, she was panting and pale. The causeway was only a few meters away and I could see and hear the water as it cascaded over the lower places and chinks in the rock lip. I swam with all my strength and passed Alma. A few meters from the causeway the bottom became shallow enough to walk on. I turned and saw Alma, she was sinking. Her eyes were closed. I rushed out and grabbed her hand, but not before she had gone under. I pulled her back from the dark water and carried her to the causeway.
Alma tried to stand but she collapsed in my arms. Her legs and stomach, where her blouse was torn away, were covered with leeches. Most were already engorged with blood. I pulled them off, quickly at first. I slowed when I saw how she was bleeding. I removed twenty of them. I was so engrossed with Alma it wasn’t until she pointed at my own legs when I noticed I too was covered with them. I pulled their wriggling bodies off of me, tossed them on the stones and rolled them under my boot.
We rested for a while longer. The sun was setting. I didn’t know how much blood either one of us lost. To rehydrate ourselves we drank the rainwater from the puddles on the causeway.
We somehow found the strength to cross the wide and level land bridge. In a few places it narrowed to perhaps to ten meters. Even though the chance of falling was slight, I still felt uneasy. Alma hung on my arm. We said very little. The land bridge was a good two and a half kilometers long with more than a few large, jagged boulders strewn about that, I’m sure would make a truck driver wince.
Then we heard a beautiful sound. The low pitched growl of a large truck as it geared down to negotiate the steep road. The highway was no more than two hundred meters ahead. We breathed easier, and actually smiled and then outright laughed. The cienaga, the plateau, Alvarez, our lives up to now fell away into the abyss of things better forgotten.
A couple in a pickup truck stopped for us. The wife, an older lady with white hair looked us over and shook her head in disbelief. Her husband, who had kindly eyes and a warm smile invited us to ride in the truck bed.
We lay on our backs next to each other on a canvas tarp. The rush of air was cool and refreshing. The moon would show itself in between the mountains. Alma sighed and kissed my cheek and whispered into my ear: “Escape is such a thankful WordI often in the Night
Consider it unto myself No spectacle in sight Escape - it is the Basket In which the Heart is caught When down some awful Battlement
The rest of Life is dropt – ’Tis not to sight the savior - It is to be the saved –And that is why I lay my Head Upon this trusty word– “And I lay my head on your trusty heart,” Alma’s voice cracked. I saw tears in her eyes. I felt them well up in mine.