Lark-Ellen, a short story, страница 1
Author of “The Search for Bryant Hunter”
Copyright 2013 Stan Smith
Buenos Dias, Señor. I am Teofilo Bojorquez, the one you are looking for. People call me Teo.
I know where your brother is. Your brother, Phil Sayre.
No, no, stay in your seat. It is better you do not see him yet, until you know the story of what happened on the plateau of Xitapec.
Well? He is as well as can be expected. Perhaps you will buy me a drink? It is a long story, and strange, and I have traveled far.
Your brother arrived in July, when the heat was still on the land like a furnace. Xitapec is never pleasant, especially in the summer. A man’s clothing gets soaked inside of twenty seconds, and the insects—no, Señor, not pleasant.
As soon as he arrived at the mine, I knew he was a troubled man. He had the look of one who has been deeply hurt, what we call malhadado—very unhappy. His wife? Yes, I thought so at the time. It is always a woman, is it not? On the way to the mining camp, he hardly spoke. Only to remark at the shining from the plateau.
Oh, you have seen it? When you flew in, I suppose. Yes, it is quite brilliant in the sunset, but I would not call it beautiful, Señor. No, hardly beautiful.
He asked, as you have, what it was. I told him it was the sun sparkling off the crosses of the penitentes. They are a religious group—fanatics—once a part of the Holy Mother Church. Yes, we are Catholics here, since the time of the Conquistadores. But these people, these penitentes—they combine the teachings of the Church with the older ways. There are still those in the interior who believe in human sacrifice and sun gods. The jungle is an ancient place, and it begins not far from the doors of the Blue Parrot in which we sit.
The penitentes believe so strongly in the story of Our Savior that they take it literally. They practice ritual self-mutilation in the manner of the scourges of Christ, and it is considered an honor among them to be crucified at Easter. So they have crosses: wooden crosses, plaster crosses, gilt crosses that sparkle in the sun.
Of course it is illegal. But the old ways die hard. Last month, a party of crocodile hunters from Miami was ambushed in the jungle by headhunters. There are not many here like me who have been to the University. There are still those that believe that the axolotl is the Sun God incarnate.
But we were talking about your brother.
Had his wife left him, Señor? He never spoke about it.
I see. Another man. So that was how it was with him. My wife, Erlinda, noticed it immediately that first night. Your brother would not eat any of her arroz con pollo, and that is the sign of a disheartened man, believe me. He looked near death, to tell you the truth, pale and listless, as if the life had been stolen from him. All our attempts at conversation were turned away, and your brother went to his bed early in the evening. Erlinda gazed at him, turning fitfully in his sleep, the sweat pooling in the hollows beneath his sunken eyes, and turned to me and said, “Querido, we must help this man. No one should be this sad.”
I agreed with her, Señor. In truth, I feared for his survival. The jungle is no place for one who is not filled with life. It can kill you quickly enough when all your wits are about you, let alone when you are losing the will to live.
But it can be a beautiful place as well. And the work was hard. In a few weeks, your brother seemed to regain some of his spirit. The mine took up most of his time, and what was left, he spent walking in the jungle, studying the birds and animals. I was with him always. In those first weeks, I feared he might take his life. Our jungle offers many opportunities for one in that frame of mind, believe me.
We walked in silence most of the time, but gradually, as your brother became more involved in the work and more interested in the jungle, we began to talk. I told him of the legends of the vinewalkers, and the Mayans who had been miners before us, centuries ago. I showed him the ruins near the base of the Xitapec plateau. And he told me of the cities of America, the freeways and the smog. And a little of his life—but not much. That he kept to himself. Perhaps it was yet too early, the pain too close to the surface.
But his face had lost its pallor, and his eyes began to lighten. He would walk through the jungle, sketching the parrots and the flowers.
You did not know he was an artist? He was, and he was quite good. I even asked him for some of his drawings. I will show them to you later.
I think he began to love the jungle, as I used to. It is a hard place, and uncomfortable; but it has a quiet beauty all its own, and an abundance of life such as is found nowhere else on earth. We became, if you will excuse me, Señor, as brothers. Certainly, there was a bond between us greater than friendship. I came to love this quiet man of science with the artistic hands, and I think he began to feel the same for me.
Near the end of September, it became time for us to resupply the camp. The mine is isolated, deep in the interior near the foothills of the plateau, and we took on provisions for weeks at a time. Your brother had refused to go with me on all the previous journeys, though I had urged him to come along. “I want no part of people,” he said, and that troubled me—for man is a social animal, and it is a sign of a certain kind of sickness when one refuses the company of one’s own species. I made sure that Erlinda watched after him on those occasions when I came to the village for our goods. I did not want him to be alone with his sickness.
But finally, that September, he asked to come with me on the trip. I will tell you now that I rejoiced inwardly, for I took it as a sign that your brother had chosen to rejoin the human race. He seemed eager to see the village, for I had told him about the iglesia, the little chapel on the square, built in the early fifteen hundreds when Hernan Cortez rode through on his conquest.
Ah, you have seen it?
You should go inside, Señor—there are artifacts from the earliest days of the Europeans in this country. Some of them are fascinating, and quite rare.
He spoke happily on that trip, and it gladdened my heart. His eyes were dancing as I described the Fiesta de la Luna, the Moon Festival that the villagers would hold that night to celebrate the harvest. It is a relic of the ancient times, a Mayan holiday whose origins were lost in antiquity, but whose celebration had lingered and had been transformed by the Spanish settlers into something that they could understand, much as Christmas transformed the old Druidic winter solstice celebrations.
The village square was hung with colorful lanterns, piñatas seemed to hang from every tree, and mariachis played here in the Blue Parrot. The shops were festooned with bright red, yellow, and green crepe paper, and the villagers were smiling with anticipation of the fiesta to come.
Your brother was reborn. The spirit of the fiesta seemed to enter his very soul. I had never seen him so happy. He sat for hours, listening to the mariachis, drumming his fingers on the café table in time to the music. I let him sit there while I did the shopping, believing finally that he had left his sickness behind.
I wish to God I had stayed, for that is when he first saw her, Señor. The woman who made him what he is today. The witch from—
No, Señor, she is gone, dead.
But I am ahead of myself. I must tell you how it was, so that you can try to understand, as I try to comprehend how such events came to be.
I was returning with the parcels, loading them into the truck. I asked your brother to help, and it was all he could do to tear himself away from the music. There was such joy in his face at that moment—I would not have believed it was the same man who had come to the camp only two months before.
We had just put the last sack of flour into the truck when it happened. If I had only been five minutes faster!
The music began again, and the townsfolk resumed their preparation for the fiesta. I turned back to the truck, ready to start back to camp.
Your brother looked at me in amazement. “Why doesn’t anyone help her?” he asked.
I spat into the dust, for in truth, I was disgusted. “Penitente,” was all I said.
He nodded. I had told him how they were. But then he started to move toward her.
“No, Señor,” I said to him. “They do not deserve our help.”
He flashed an angry look at me, the first time I had seen that from him. “Just because you don’t agree with her religion doesn’t mean you can’t be civilized.”
Before I could stop him, he had gone to her. He did not understand, even though I had told him. The villagers hated the penitentes, and it was only for their money in the shops that they were tolerated at all. Anyone who had