Alma returned. She had brushed her hair and I think she even put on lipstick. She wore a light blue scarf, a red, sleeveless blouse, jeans and tan riding boots.
“Would you come with me to the caballeriza?”
“Of course. But I must warn you, what you’ll see is very terrible.”
When we reached the stable, Alma hesitated at the door. We reached for the handle at the same time and our hands touched. “Allow me, and Alma, do prepare yourself.” I pulled the door open. The sunlight raced the length of the stable floor, and up and over the lifeless animal. Alma took a step back when she saw. She grabbed onto my arm with both her hands, put her forehead on my shoulder and averted her eyes.
“You don’t have to go in,” I said.
“No, this is…this is so hard to believe that it could have happened… so hard to believe, I must see,” she whispered. Alma let go of my arm, took a few steps forward and knelt next to El Cid. She gently ran her fingers along a few of the deeper claw marks and looked at the blood on her fingertips and brought it to her lips.
I reached out and stopped her. “No, no, what are you doing, Alma?”
She stood and shook her head as if to clear her mind. She rubbed at her fingertips until all traces of the blood were gone. “I don’t know what I was doing…” Alma began to sway from side to side. What little color she had drained to white and she fell away from me. I lunged and caught her around the waist and stopped her from falling. Her knees buckled and her back arched but she was so light I was able to pull her up and against my chest. I put my arm around her shoulders and the other one under the crook of her knees and carried her back to the kitchen.
The kitchen girl, the one who served us the night before already had the door open.
“Patrònita, que pasò? Señor, what has happened?” The girl clasped her hands together and held them under her chin.
I looked around and the kitchen girl pointed to the great room. I made my way past her and set Alma on the sofa and pulled her legs around so she could lie down. The girl had a pillow ready for Alma’s head. I put Alma’s feet up and slipped off her boots.
“Get some water and a small towel, quickly.”
The girl was gone and back within a minute. I dampened the cloth and wiped away the perspiration on Alma’s forehead and face. The girl knelt next to the sofa and held Alma’s hand. In a minute or so Alma opened her eyes. The color came back to her cheeks and she reached up and took my hand.
“What happened?” Alma turned her head and gave a weak smile, “No te preocupes, Lupita, don’t worry, little one.” Alma pulled her hand free of mine, got her elbows under her and pushed herself up.
I sent Lupita into the kitchen to make some guayusa tea.
“I am so sorry. I have seen animals that have been killed but I’ve never fainted. I don’t know what is the matter with me.”
“It was a gruesome scene, and El Cid, losing him is like losing a family member.” Her eyes glistened with tears; she quickly blinked them away.
“Do you remember what you were doing right before you fainted?”
She shook her head ‘no,’ arched her eyebrows and gave me a curios look.
I sat next to her, looked over my shoulder to make sure Lupita was not in ear shot and leaned in close. “Alma, you smeared the horse’s blood on your fingertips and you were about to touch them to your tongue.”
The revelation gave her a jolt. She took a few deep breaths and sat there quietly.
I heard the kettle whistle, “I’ll check on the tea.”
“Lupita will bring it, stay with me, please.”
We sat there without saying a word. The clock chimed seven. Lupita carried a tray with the tea pot and cups. Leòn was with her.
“Señora, I have brought men to bury El Cid. Should we wait for El Patròn?” Leòn stood with his head lowered and his gaze on the floor.
“No Leòn, dig the grave on the north side of the corral. We cannot wait, it is already getting hot.”
“Sì, Patrònita, we will start now.” Leòn bowed.
Lupita poured the tea, and then went about her chores.
“You said yesterday you have seen jaguars on the plateau before, do you think it could have been one of them that killed El Cid?”
“It is quite possible. Leòn and his men will look for signs. An animal that big will be sure to leave tracks.” Alma stirred some sugar into her tea. “This will be a good pick-me-up. Have some with me.”
I didn’t much care for the taste of the guayusa, but to be polite I doctored it up with sugar and lemon and took a sip. I couldn’t hold back, “Alma, last night I heard noises on the balcony, it was this ungodly growling sound and a shadow passed by my door and disappeared over the railing. I went to see what it was and down on the lawn I saw a jaguar and I think I saw a woman, too. I know they both saw me. They went into the bush. Did you hear it too?”
"You say a jaguar… and a woman? Are you sure of what you saw? What did she look like? Could you see her face?”
“No, but she didn’t look much taller than you.”
“Sometimes the moon and the clouds and the mist can play tricks.” You didn’t see her face?”
“No, she was hard to make out, the mist seemed to cling to her. And you, you didn’t hear or see anything?”
“No, I was asleep, I must have been asleep. I don’t know of any other woman on the plateau or from the selva who it could be. It was probably just a dream. You are still not rested from your trip here, and we did drink a bit of wine.” I couldn’t tell if she was trying to be dismissive or not. “There are no other women on the plateau except las indias, and you say the jaguar was on our balcony?”
I nodded, ‘yes’.
“Hèctor is not as sound a sleeper as I am. But I’m sure he would have noticed a jaguar on our balcony, and honestly I don’t know what any of us could have done in the middle of the night….” Alma wrinkled her brow and pursed her lips in contemplation, “I don’t know if telling him would be a good idea. It’s probably best we keep this between ourselves.”
Her words did make sense. Hector did have a temper; that was for sure. I didn’t want to lose the project either. “Maybe you’re right, no sense in tipping the boat.” The tea tasted a little more palatable.
“Good, this will be our secret.” She said with a wink.
I caught the scent of her perfume. Alma slowly got to her feet. She held her arms by her waist with her hands outstretched and her palms down for balance and looked back over her shoulder at me. “How did I get here in the great room?” She stood inches away with her back to me. I had an inexplicable urge to run my hands over her shoulders and down her back and along the gentle curve of her hips. I clasped my hands together and pressed them against my stomach.
I was grateful for the distraction of making conversation. I had to smile at the similarity to the story she told me the night before about Hèctor carrying her into the shed during the thunder storm. “I carried you in from the stables,” I said anticipating that she would see the irony too.
Alma turned and faced me. She smiled and said with a laugh, “Oh, you men, someone always carrying me to safety. I do thank you.”
“You were a lady in distress, it was my duty.” In that intoxicating moment, and though I didn’t want to admit it, an unmistakable spark ignited between us. We must have realized it at the same instance because we both fell back to a more formal countenance. Our smiles faded but neither one of us could deny our adolescent excitement or disguise the afterglow that remained.
“No longer dizzy?” I asked as I stood and stretched.
“All back to normal.” Alma went to the window and opened the drapes. The mist-muted sun poured into the room. She turned toward me. Maybe it was how the light played on her hair or the way it washed over and down her pale shoulders and arms, but for a moment she was a vision that went beyond the physical, beyond my understanding. I stood there entranced.
“I am going for a walk. Come with me, please.”
I had to get my mental balance. Deep inside I knew I shouldn’t go; that I shouldn’t put myself in any compromising situations, my time would be better spent studying the topographical maps and charts. Instead, I steeled myself against the wave of good sense and propriety, and put my trust in my weakness. “Alright...now?” ‘It’s just a walk with a new acquaintance,’ I told myself.
“Yes, we can make a day of it. Hèctor won’t be back until late. I’ll have Lupita make us sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. We can bring our poetry books and read our favorites to each other, it will be fun.” Alma’s words were so light and gay that now, I was glad I consented to go. She approached me, and by the look in her eyes I knew she wanted me to hug her, I resisted. She read my reluctance and settled on patting my shoulder.
“Do you like Neruda? I love him.” Alma skipped like a little girl on her way the kitchen. “Lupita, make sandwiches and coffee for the thermos bottle, and are there any of those chocolates left? Do we have any hard boiled eggs?” Alma started to hum.
I went to my room to get my hat and the volume of Browning’s poetry, the same one I bought those months ago the day I found myself in the phone booth with Sylvie. Now that the sun was up I could check the balcony for signs of my jaguar. I saw no footprints, no stray hairs or scratches on the balcony railing, nothing. When I saw the topographical charts on the dressing chest I had second thoughts about going on a walk. Being out of her presence for these few moments gave me clarity. I was here for work, not socializing. I would tell Alma I thought better of going. Yes, yes… I could tell her I was tired, or that I should start my discovery on the project.
“Are you ready, Emilio?” Alma called from the bottom of the stairs.
When I looked down and saw her radiant smile I immediately gave in. “Yes.”