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[Distant rivers sigh her name as she asks for ice water at the counter. The troubled man eating alone suddenly remembers his first love as her scent reaches him, and a family stirs uneasily, as if the weight of secrets becomes too much; the wife will confess to infidelity before nightfall. She passes a wire rack filled with dusty paperbacks. With a lily-pale fingertip, the woman traces the spine of something written by Louis LíAmour. There is a photo of him on the back cover, wearing a red print shirt and a white straw cowboy hat. Pausing, she mouths, ĎA mind, like a home, is furnished by its owner, so if oneís life is cold and bare, he can blame none but himself.í It is a quote from Bendigo Shafter, the book she touched, and from that brief contact, she bears away truth, osmotic but static. Stories are a form of immortality.
They have depicted in her other times with scales and lamps and owls. Only one artist ever captured her, but he lost his Muse when she left him, and her true face, smudged out in charcoal, went into his hearth, shortly before he hanged himself. A diadem of light, her fair hair shimmers as she splits a sunbeam precisely as an atom, though the resultant explosion only causes Coyote to prick up his ears, some fourteen miles hence. She wears a mantle of prescience and portent, although to anyone else, it looks like a yellow rain slicker. It has not rained in fourteen days. The sun shines as she returns to the cracked orange vinyl booth where an old man waits with the quiet patience of Old Testament prophets. He watches her settle across from him again. She draws no eyes. She is here to do a job.]
In the year of our Lord, 1958, we slew an angel.
Ah, you werenít expecting that. It isnít the ultimate truth, of course, but such things build a city about them on a foundation of quietus and grave pauses, of averted eyes and strained silences. People who share a secret will betray each other, go mad, or die. I am waiting to find out what my fate will be while the others who also Knew have all done the former before the latter. Therefore, we must take the back road, dear lady, or we will lose ourselves in the twists and turns of the shadow spaces.
But you knew that already.
Spring of 1958 found me in Puerto Barrios, taking shore leave from the M.V. Chimo, a cargo hauler out of Montreal with my four closest friends, crewman and officers both. Nobody cared about fraternization in those days; we did our jobs and did them well, and that was all anyone knew or cared about. We were a wild bunch, Iíll tell you straight. Came into port like a hurricane, we did, and drank the town dry. I miss those fellas: Danny Newman, Foss Jenkins, Doc Calloway, and Elwood Kresky were their names.
Puerto Barrios was nothing like it is today, of course. Even though it was a mainland port, it felt like a tropical islandówith every bit of that associated tribal magic. The native women lured us, dusky jewels, they were, and thatís all Iím going to say about that. Guatemala is a sleeping leopard, as I suppose you know, ancient Mayan ruins hidden beneath the sands of time, and indigenous peoples, dark-eyes burning with lost lore, once fierce but long trod down by a legacy of domination.
In a climate where everything grows, they all had such impossibly hungry eyes. Any vice, any lust could be satisfied in Puerto Barrios. Starving children begged us for coins as we came into the docks. We did not wish to hear or see. We walked by. It was not a beautiful city, but we strove to see only the beaches, only the glimmering sea, to which we would return time and again, until briny water and harsh sun sapped us of our juices. Drained us dry. She is a succubus, the sea. To this day, I miss her, which I suppose constitutes sound proof that a man can love devotedly, life long, something that loves him not.
The average family in Puerto Barrios lives in a shanty house of tin and driftwood, no running water or electricity, a sea of mud during the rainy season. I remember being shocked to learn that men on coffee plantations earned twenty cents a day, living in what looked like concentration camps. Yes, maíam, do have another cup. Donít think about where it came from.
My first day ashore there, I saw an advertisement about a large plantation for sale that read: 200 hectares and 300 Indians. And this was all that remained of the ancient Mayas, whom the American archeologist Sylvanus Morely called Ďthe most splendid indigenous people on the planet.í And we -- well, perhaps not you, dear lady, I do not believe you're an American, but the United States made things worse in 1954, overthrowing the last reform government, the legally-elected regime of Jacabo Arbenz.
But what did we care for any of that? We were five white men taking three days leave from sea.
I remember as clearly if it happened only yesterday while other recollections grow fuzzier by the moment, gauze-wrapped comfits I can no longer touch, slices of melting sweetness. Eventually, there will be nothing left to me but this recollection blazing, ever bright. And that, I suppose, is fitting.
I am the last of us, the very last, and now, I will tell the first secret to you, my dear lady, exactly as it happened that spring night in 1958.
[She smiles, her teeth sharp and white as bone knives. She will listen and reserve judgment. Her eyes tell nothing.]