Category: ~ 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award finalist collection “Foreground”

Jorge and the Santa Muerte

First, let me tell you I am a cautious person. The boy stood at a corner, where a side street cut into the main road. Kitty-corner from the Iglesia de La Santa Muerte, the Church of Saint Death. He had been standing there since 1997, long before the church appeared. He was six or seven then. He stood facing the road. He did not register the passing cars. He was dirty, dressed in rags, and barefoot. He was a ghost, and still is. Time went by in five- or six-month intervals. I never thought about him until I was about a half mile from the corner. Then I would start to think about him, and I’d say, “I wonder if the kid is standing there.” Near an unfinished structure, cement blocks, maybe a little house or store. With never enough funds to finish it. Sprayed with a faded graffiti, in black paint that said, “Vale verga mal gobierno.” Roughly, the government isn’t worth shit.

It was November, when I passed. He was wearing a plaid jacket, buttoned askew – Good Will stuff, trucked down from the border, by the ton, illegally. He wore oversized black sneakers, without laces. No socks. For the first time in thirteen years, someone had begun to take care of him. I suspected the Iglesia de la Santa Muerte, right there in front of him.

I was returning from a trip to the big town, where the houses are adobe and whitewashed, except for the first four feet, which are painted a dark cold red. I had walked the square, eaten watery over-sugared ice cream under the portales, the arched covered walkways, and had even had a drink. Whisky. I never drink whisky. I never drink anything hard. But with all the cold red paint and the whitewash, and it being November, one small shot warmed my chest and raised my sense of brotherhood. And that is why I stopped the car and got out. And walked over to the boy. For the first time in thirteen years.

He took a step back. I respected his fear and veered away. I looked for someone I could talk to. I walked up the side street. A man approached. He was a shorter than me, trim and white-haired. His face was a little red. I suspected his chest is warmer than mine. I greeted him. He was curious about me. A gringo out of his car. What could it mean?

“Para servirle,” he said, as if I were a customer. May I help you?

I said I’d been driving past the boy for thirteen years, and I’d stopped for the first time. “He has a new coat and shoes,” I said, waving behind me, at the ghost. It was a question, poorly disguised as a statement.

“Sí, eso sí es,” he said – but that was it. A non-committal agreement.

I wanted to ask things. But a follow-up question would have crossed a boundary. Like, who bought the jacket and shoes for him, why now, why hadn’t he been taken care of before? Who did he belong to? He could have been the man’s child. The man could have been connected to the church across the road. Similar churches were springing up all over Mexico. There was a word associated with them. My wife had told me not to throw it around. You never knew who you were talking to.

He asked where I was from, and was I visiting? I said I was from the capital of the next state north. I was visiting friends, I said. And that was all I said. I didn’t want him to know who my friends were or where they lived. He didn’t pursue it.

“I’ve worried about him over the years,” I said, realizing immediately what I was saying. I was a man who worried, but not enough to stop in thirteen years. A man who recognized a metaphor – the boy as the vast neglected population of Mexico – and left it at that.

The whisky was losing its heating power. I decided it had placed myself in a weak position. The man sighed. He looked at the boy. He looked back at me. Both of us looked for clues. The man’s shoes were modest, the soles good. Mine were fancy nylon sandals, with thick treads for wading in clean rivers and getting in out of first world kayaks.

“His name is Jorge,” the man said. “He’s always been that way.”

“I’m glad someone’s helping him,” I said. “I’ve never tried to help him.”

“Yo tampoco,” says the man. Me either. He raised his considerable eye brows, as if he were telling me something of great significance I probably couldn’t understand. “Even God has not helped him.”

This was a mouthful. I looked kitty-corner to the church.

“Someone over there helped him,” he said. And then he put his palms over his eyes, spread his fingers, and peeked through. As if to say, let’s not go any farther in that direction. He was also grinning, and the humor seemed like it could be at my expense.

“Ven,” he said, using the intimate imperative. Come! And we walked back toward Jorge. The man brought out a paper-wrapped shape, folded back the paper, and lifted out a taco. Chunks of meat in a red sauce. Jorge took it, at about solar plexus level, and dropped his face to it, like a dog. His hands were more than dirty. He farted as took the first bite.

The man wrapped the empty paper together so the juices were on the inside. He took a few steps and threw it against the wall of the unfinished structure, where it dropped among other similar wrappings, just below the graffiti “Vale verga mal gobierno”. He walked back to me.

“I can show you the church,” he said. He saw my doubt. “It’s alright, no one is going to shoot you,” he caught my eye, “if you come in peace.” He had raised his eyebrows again, to emphasize seriousness. If you come in peace sounded like some kind of authority. I was also not sure how we had made the jump: Jorge, then going in the church.

I considered saying I had to get along. I took out my car keys. He glanced at them. “You care about Jorge. We are not always ready to help those we don’t know.” I decided we meant him and me. And that he was building brotherhood.

“No one is going to kidnap you,” he said, with I thought a priest-like smile. “I know you’re curious. They hide nothing. Over half of this village has left the Catholic Church to worship there.” He pointed across the street. I took in the preferred church’s double door, the gothic half-arch windows, the bumpy frosted bronzed plastic panes. The oversized brass door handles – low-end Southern California crematorium style, without the smokestack.

“People are beginning to help Jorge. You’re not the only one.” He opened one side of the double doors. He switched on the lights.

“It’s just us,” he said, turning back.

I pointed my keys at my car, to make sure it was locked. Its parking lights winked.

“Do you have a key for yourself?” he snorted. He was very agreeable. But his joke showed too much intelligence. His Spanish was too clear. I remained standing in the doorway.

“What’s your connection to the church?” I asked, needing reassurance. I used su, the formal possessive adjective. I wanted to keep my distance.

“It’s complicated,” he said. I backed up a few steps, beckoning to him to come back out and discuss it with me.

“What do you want to know?” he asked.

“Well, I’m not sure what I can ask,” I said, thinking of my wife’s warning.

“Where are you staying?” he asked. And then: “Never mind, that just feeds your suspicion. I assure you, we help more people than we kill,” he said, lifting his considerable eyebrows – straight-faced. Pulling my leg, I thought, to show me I was being paranoid.

“My name is Luís,” he said. I shook his hand. It was cold. I did not say my name.

Inside, there were ten or more rows of simple benches. There was space in front for kneeling before the Santa Muerte. She was a plastic Katrina, a skeleton, with three-dimensional bones, wrapped in see through pastel chiffon. She rose up life-size out of a sea of devotional candle that flickered red, white, Virgin Mary blue, and ecclesiastical purple. She was missing one arm. A few shriveled and forgotten Purépecha women knelt before her, fingering their rosaries and praying for what? Food? That someone would touch them? See the nineteen-year old inside?

A car crunched to a stop. The door opened. A Policía Federal stepped through, his jacket too tight for more than one button. He held a small package wrapped in white paper. He glanced at the Indian women. He looked me up and down. He said something to my host. Something quick. A question, ending with ternero. Something like: Is this the missing calf?

Luís’s answer was also quick, and equally coded. “Aún no ha pastado.” Too young to graze, still at the mother’s tit.

“This is Nacho,” said Luis, with his palm out. No one was interested in my name. Luís brought three folding chairs over from the wall, and set them up facing each other. He placed a fourth one in the middle. Nacho unfolded his package on the fourth chair. “Chivo,” he said. Goat meat. I could smell it. So could the Purépecha women. Their rebozos shadowed their faces. Their head had turned, and they were staring. They did not look away.

With a little homophobic posturing – hip cocked, hand on his elbow, finger on his lips – Luís chose a bottle, from the feet of the Saint. Jim Beam.

Nacho gestured toward the goat meat. “Tómale, güero!” He handed me a napkin. I plucked out a hunk of mutton. The meat was still warm, not too fatty. He handed me an envelope of salt. We drank out of votive glasses. Mine was Virgin blue. Nacho wore gold chain under his gun-blue shirt. He needed a shave. His eyes were brighter than I liked. My hand trembled as I lifted my glass. I steadied it with my other hand.

“Qué tal los ataques contra el gobierno?” he asked. How do you like those attacks against the government?

His eyes were bloodshot. I was expected to give an answer. My chest was warm. My heart fluttered. I saw burning buses, trailer truck infernos, their drivers lying in the street. Tiro de gracia. A bullet in the back of the head. Someone like Nacho, shaved, two buttons buttoned, dark suit, standing in front of a huge Mexican flag, the presidential sash across his chest. Three years down the line.

I started to speak.

“Thirty-three municipalities,” he smacked, his mouth full of goat “They got money for sewage treatment plants, not a single one built, casas muy chillón instead, glitzy houses, built by the mayors. Feeder springs covered over. The silted lake. The water level drops. No fish. Horses and oxen for plowing. This is the pinche twenty-first century.” Nacho licked a thumb and hairy forefinger. He glared at me as if I were the cause of it all.

I felt safe. The chatty circle. Three chairs. The Jim Beam. The Indian women had turned away, too hungry to keep their bodies twisted. Like street dogs that knew they weren’t going to be fed.

“I could make a call on my radio, and 40 armed men would be here in three-quarters of an hour. Cut off the roads in ten different places. Lanzagranadas, RPG’s, granade launchers. It takes three hours for the army to get anywhere. A hundred years lost. No jobs. Shit for education. Aguacate or mariguana? How hard a choice is that? The North pretends it’s not involved. Maybe we’ll build the goddamn treatment plants. The fish will come back. Fuck the mal gobierno. We’ll kill the people who stand in the way. Send down the drones and we’ll kill your children.” I looked at Luís. Luís raised his eyebrows. At me.

I had stopped eating. I looked back at Nacho. His eyes were bulging, as if he had come to the surface too quickly. I looked at my Virgin blue votive glass. It was empty.

Nacho said pués, he had to go. He stuck out his gun leg and pulled out his black automatic, some kind of Glock. He cocked it and pointed it at my right foot. I pulled my foot back a bit. The Glock was stuck in midair, and didn’t follow. Nacho wiped goat grease off his mouth. He re-holstered the gun. He filled my votive glass with Jim Beam. He said maybe I could write a letter of recommendation for his daughter, so she could study in Chicago. He showed me a photo. A charming young woman. I imagined myself married to her, visiting Nacho on the weekends. Her name was Maricruz. The old question floated in the air. You know, like how do you get her across?

“Tunnels,” he winked. “And friends.”

I nodded. We stood and shook hands. I bowed slightly, the way my mother taught me. To show I respected him. “Mucho gusto,” I said.

“I know where to find you,” he said. I looked at Luis. He raised his eyebrows – another warning. Or jest. I couldn’t tell which. There were a few chunks of meat left. Nacho wrapped them. He glanced over at the Indian women, decided against it, and put the meat in his pocket, for later.

He stopped at the door. “I also know how to tell others where you live.” A comment I didn’t think went well with the recommendation for Maricruz. And then he was out the door. We heard the car pull away, heading back to the town.

It was very likely he had seen my license plate. He had a radio, probably a black thing, with blinking lights. The curse of Mexico is that there’s a sophisticated microwave repeater tower on every mountain top. I calculated the ease of cross checking information. It was still late afternoon. Transito could still be open. Maybe he already knew my name and address.

Luís led me out the back door, into the sweet smell of cow. A farmyard, carpeted with shredded dried manure from various animals. In a small corral of their own, two fine oxen, for plowing. A large corral, partly covered, with a dozen grey, flop-eared, hump-backed Brahman, happy to back from their lakeside grazing. A clutch of gleaming brown hens scattered before us, heads down, making lateral escapes. Slim Ameraucanas – my favorites. Pigs I could smell and hear, but not see. Probably the same for them.

“Where are we going?” I asked. He looked at me but did not answer. A bent campesino approached us from a path that led in from the marsh. A substantial haystack walked along behind him. A burro loaded with rastrojo de maíz, dried corn stalks, to the extent that the animal was completely hidden. Even its legs. We arrived at a shed at the same time.

“This is Don Venus,” said Luis.

I nodded. Don Venus looked just past me, at one of my ears. He moved his lips. No sound came out. Luis asked him to wait a moment before unloading the rastrojo. The shed was a lean-to, open on three sides. There were still some stalks leaning up against the rear wall. Luís pulled these aside and revealed an old green plastic tarp. And out from under this, he pulled what most of us recognize as the global insurgent weapon, the Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47. It was painted a marine gray, chipped and dinged. God knows how old, or from what military. He fumbled around some more and brought a cuerno de chivo, the curved thirty-round magazine, and clicked it into place, thus completing the icon. In some parts of Asia and Africa, the whole thing for twenty dollars.

“How many have you got?” I asked, before I could stop myself.

He ignored me and told Don Venus – who had seen everything – to go ahead and unload his corn stalks. “Ven,” he said, and we started off on the path into the marsh. Right away, he pulled a pint bottle out of his back pocket. More Jim Beam. I took a swig. Then he took one. Then he dropped the bottle on a tuft of soft dry grass that the Brahmans appeared to be saving for later. “We´ll pick it up on the way back,” he said. He gave me a challenging smirk, in anticipation of a discovered deficiency – in me. “Have you ever shot one of these things?” he asked. I hadn´t. And the little warrior in me thrilled.

The path was a raised dike, formed by the dredged channel to our left. We passed a drawn up dugout – a canoa, the modern version, plywood and fiberglass – that waited for its fisherman to return. The dike widened a little. We stopped where a square – maybe six feet by six feet – had been cut out of the bog.

“Do you see it?” he asked.

I saw something in the brown water, a foot down. I stepped closer. A body splayed out, with small fish, too ravenous to flee, eating away at a vague white mass. Then I realized I was looking at a hoof, and that the victim was a calf that had been split open and staked down at each hoof. And then I thought I saw a human hand floating deeper down, below it all.

I caught a movement in the corner of my eye. I turned and saw that Luís had the Kalashnikov pointed at me.

“You could donate your arm to the Saint,” he said. And then, with his brows raised, “For Jorge’s sake.” A smile formed. He thought it was funny.

He swung the gun away. “Let’s shoot it,” he said, and I jumped when he fired a single round at some grebes that were dunking and squeaking, in open water a hundred feet away. The birds fluttered across the water, turning this way and that. Some went airborne, others submerged. I felt pee cooling on my inner thigh.

“You try it,” he said. He moved a lever. “Automatic,” he said. He presented the gun with both hands, like an award. I held it at waist level and fired off a burst. At the grebes, farther away now. They panicked. One fluttered, then floated limp. My ears rang. I fired another burst. This one longer, and cut a path back back into the junco, a not too distant line of reeds. And then I fired until the cuerno de chivo was empty. On purpose. He understood what I’d done. His eyebrows were raised.

“Pasto para los chivos, cuernos para los cuervos.” He smirked, again as if he had discovered a small hypocrisy. Grass for the goats, horns for the crows. Or was the last phrase bullets for the cuernos de chivo -for the corpses the crows will pick at?

I didn’t understand. My mind was on the shredded calf, picked at by fish. I wondered it they were the same white fish that the tourists ate deep fried and cold. Plus, there was something else I couldn’t quite focus on.

On the way back, we stopped for the bottle. The whisky helped. I looked to see if you could see pee wetting through on my pants. You couldn’t. Don Venus sat on a three-legged stool. His burro dozed tied to the shed. Don Venus held a machete across his thighs. Luís handed him the Kalashnikov. Don Venus walked into the shed, to put it away. He carried the machete in his left hand, by its plastic black handle, and the AK-47 balanced in the right so the muzzle wouldn’t drag on the ground – as if it too were a campesino’s everyday tool.

We went back into the church. There were more women inside. One of them very pretty, with expensive shoes, an alligator handbag, and a thin-striped blue and black rebozo, to make her look Indian. I heard her smooth voice address the Santa Muerte: “Preciosa” –precious. Then she looked at me, curious, lingering. I recognized a woman of open complexity. At another time I might have joined the church, to be near her. Outside, I said she was muy guapa, very attractive. Luís raised his eyebrows and tickled the air with his forefinger – Mexican for yes. He said her husband was killed in a shoot out with Federal Police. I suspected Nacho immediately, but didn’t say anything. She had parked her new VW Jetta so close to the front door that we were barely able to squeeze out.

“A stunning woman,” he said. I thought I could hear suggestion in his voice. Like, you could have her, if you were with us. I wondered why her husband was in a shoot out. That brought up the word my wife didn’t want me to use. So I didn’t say it.

We shook hands. I wanted to ask things. The hand under the calf, for instance. Was he supposed to build a sewage treatment plant? Did he offer crystal meth to teenagers, then fuck them? And what’s the stuff with the calves?

Luís raised his eyebrows. “We’ll find her an arm from some other carbrón.” Perhaps because of the whisky and brotherhood, I shook his hand again. Maybe just to celebrate the arm I appeared to be getting away with. Maybe all they had was the hand and not the whole arm. I ignored the word cabrón as a license permitted between warm-chested friends.

“Don’t come back,” he said. “And don’t use the word narco. It just brings trouble.

“I understand,” I said. Although I didn’t.

“Don’t stop again,” he said. I wasn’t sure why he was emphasizing the point. As he squeezed past the Jetta to go back in, he looked at me and wagged his forefinger, Mexican for no.

Under the windshield wiper, on the driver’s side, I found the wrapping from Jorge’s taco. I was pretty sure he had put it there. Some of its juice had dripped down out of sight below the wiper. I took the paper out from under the wiper. I didn’t know where to put it. Jorge was standing across the road still. He was holding his hand out. I walk across the road. He stood firm. His hand moved a little toward me. He didn’t look at me. I put the wrapper in his hand. His head bobbed a little. He lowered his arm, still holding the paper. He continued looking at the road, and beyond to the Iglesia de la Santa Muerte. With the barest trip in my voice, I said, “Que te vaya bien, Jorge,” take care, and I returned to my car. I held my arm up and pointed with the key. The parking lights winked. And then I got in and locked the doors.

The Tumor and the Baritone

When my Uncle Joe ate, he bent over his food, looking at a point a foot or so in front of him, and chewed in slow mortification. He also whispered when he wrote, in a high register, not too different from whistling. I have always thought, as many words were lost to the air in front of him, as were ever written down. Between fits of scribbling, he rustled pages in his small notebook, back and forth, as if it were important never to let the words hop forward, from one page to the next, but rather to hide them in different spots, like a squirrel.

Part of the problem, it seemed, was that Uncle Joe had a tumor that was pressed against certain nerves and affected his activities, including one not so easily discussed by people like me who grew up in New England and were taught to avoid the topics that fascinate us most.

He was lonely during this part of his life, and so he would suggest trips to his nieces and nephews. And since he really only had one of each, and since his niece Eleanor, my sister, was only eight, he tended to take her to the zoo and me, who was a good ten years older, to the African Niger delta or the upper reaches of the Amazon.

He preferred the Amazon, especially the area west of that river’s confluence with the Rio Negro. There, the water was clearer, deeper, the air less fetid and heavy, the mood, in short, more optimistic than among the swamplands of the Niger. In that place the mosquitoes, the billowing thunderheads, and the presence of poisonous snakes filled the air with danger to the point that there was no air left to breathe, and my Uncle Joe and I had to hyperventilate just to stay even. Exhausted by these conditions, and to counter the thirst that fear induces, I learned to drink quantities of African beer, and to glide over the muddy Niger either bent over my own food or slumped down in our leaky boat in an alcoholic stupor.

In Brazil we traveled in dugouts only, propelled by long-shafted outboards that slanted back into the water at such an angle that we were able to navigate through extremely shallow waters if we needed to find a sand bar for sleeping, or approach a village for food. My Uncle Joe chose outboards in general, because the sound of the motor drowned out the ringing in his ear from the tumor that was always the other companion on these jaunts – this two centimeter egg that nested in his brain, just inland from his left ear.

The tumor, which was to be measured and simply observed for the time being, had a profound effect on my uncle’s artistic proclivities. A fairly shy man for most of his years, he began to make up arias and ballads and sing them in a surprisingly beautiful baritone, which attracted the attention of people and some animals wherever we went.

Late one afternoon, a river steamer came up behind us, hissing an arc of water ahead of its copper bow, billowing black smoke, giving short asthmatic blasts on its whistle to say they were overtaking, but also that the passengers should assemble, there was something worth seeing. In the midst of a sudden Brazilian downpour, which came and went, and over the drum of the slowing pistons, with women in white dresses hovering just back from the dripping canopy, you heard my Uncle Joe, saw him standing in the dugout, forward toward the bow, his right arm out, palm up, addressing the steamer, singing his own version of Puccini’s O mio Babbino Caro. He could not reach the highest notes. Plus, it was Lauretta’s aria, not Rinuccio’s. But it was his favorite, and inspired by moisture, he sang in his strange spine-tingling baritone which, because of the egg, had now been bumped up to a notch or two below tenor.

And I could see them, those straining faces, unable to speak, before this apparition, a full-bellied middle-aged man standing in his drenched white linen suit, with his arms outstretched, an unshaven Lauretta, in a soggy mouse-eaten Panama, pleading for permission to marry her love, which each woman on the steamer must have secretly believed was female, and very much like herself.

The captain of the steamer, which was called the Aberdeen, drew back on the throttle and the pistons lay still. The hull, black and rusted, glided noiselessly forward. Water dripped from the faded steamer canopy. This was when I think my uncle noticed people among his audience. Their presence seemed to make his voice swell, he doffed the limp Panama – a Cubano – and held it out in salute, up and down, so as not to suggest donations, while his voice trembled out the last few lines Lauretta’s longing.

On this particular occasion, the captain of the steamer, a gallant bearded officer in blue coat and white trousers and with gold on his hat, motioned that I should stop the engine and come along side. And when we had drawn close and our motor was still, I could see the captain’s white shirt was frayed at the collar, his eyes bloodshot beneath the brim of his splendid hat, and his nose red probably from something like what my uncle and I had drunk on the Niger and continued to drink on the Amazon.

We were invited to dine with a lady, he barked, an announcement that caused a murmur among the passengers, and when we were still closer, and he had come down a ladder and placed one scuffed leather boot on our gunnel, he added – in confidence – that she was an Austrian countess, from a very old and much respected European family.

But I was the only one who seemed moved by this information. With the motor off, the ringing had begun again in my uncle’s head and he sat now in the bottom of the dugout bent forward with his hands pressed to his ears, and appeared to experience something like the same sort of distress that he displayed while eating.

I felt sorry for him, the object of so many stares from the railing of the steamer above us. The throb of insects and frogs coming from the river’s banks made me feel as if I was under water. And I imagined the sound my uncle was hearing inside his head was simply the exaggeration of that, and a much more serious thrall.

Later, at dinner, the countess, who had placed my uncle at her side and me at her other side, whispered a question to me. Was my uncle’s affliction an old one and had he received treatment, and was he, in that very moment when he appeared to be eating, in fact crying? Because, she had noticed, his shoulders rose and fell and twisted, as he tore flakes of meat away from the chicken leg and drew them into his mouth.

I told her, because of the egg, he had a very great ringing in his head that caused him various vexations, not the least of which – and I am not sure it was because of the wine or out of pity for my uncle’s loneliness – and I asked her pardon for my directness – not the least of which was a distressing over-activity of his manhood which kept him restless at night and by day subject to bouts of unpredictable shyness.

The countess, a very dignified and, I must say, strikingly beautiful woman, looked straight ahead of her and nodded slowly, with the expression of someone who is contemplating a deeply moving human truth and, in her mind, searching for what steps should be undertaken in response.

From that moment on she grew even more gentle and solicitous with my Uncle Joe. She poured him wine, lay new chicken legs on his plate for him to bend over. She praised his singing, in comparative references, to our Scottish captain and other nodding heads at the table, and to me spoke of a great surgeon in Vienna whom she knew personally and who she was sure could help my Uncle Joseph, the name I now used when I referred to him.

We continued upriver for four days, the little steamer pulling our dugout behind like a colt on a lead to its mother, and I did not see much of my uncle and the countess, except at suppers, when my uncle bent over his food, and the countess, looking tired but happy, fussed lovingly over him and said endless kind things to me about the need for continuing my education and living in a stable healthy climate and avoiding the evils of smoking and alcohol.

After breakfast, on the fifth day, we cast off from the Aberdeen. Something had changed between the countess and my Uncle Joe. The sparkle had gone out of her eyes, she looked alternately angry and hurt, stared darkly at me, then looked away. My uncle was gallant but unreachable at the end. When the moment came, he bent to kiss her hand. She restrained herself, drew in a deep breath, and overcame, I think, an urge to hit him, then held the caressed hand strangely, with her other one, like someone covering a wound. He bowed once more, in his old linen suit and turned away, straight-backed and buoyant. A bell rang, the pistons stopped, steamer hushed to a crawl. We descended a hemp ladder to our tottering places in the dugout, and then fell behind, pushed away by the thrashing of the steamer’s great brass screw. While the distance increased, and the pistons beat out their rhythm of our separation, my uncle and I sat there among the empty beer bottles and stared a little like orphans, I thought, out over the steamer’s wake, the only connection now between us. The passengers waved, at first, then gradually found reasons to move away, so that the countess could be alone at the stern. And when she was very far away, she raised her arm, held it aloft for a long moment, then let it drop, and the steamer turned a distant green curve in the river, and was gone.

The water around us, the stirred mud, the unfamiliar floating leaves, other flotsam, gradually stopped roiling. Spilled gasoline, beer, and old bilge replaced the smell of the Aberdeen’s coal smoke. And we lay that way for some time, drifting and listening to the voices of the rainforest. My uncle seemed unexpectedly content. I had thought he would stay with countess and go to Vienna and be married and never be lonely again. But I said nothing. I primed the motor, adjusted the throttle, and before pulling the starter rope turned once more to look at him.

“The ringing is gone,” he said, and beamed the long warm, lingering smile of someone who is imparting very happy news. The ringing was gone, and it had been gone for more than a day.

I was going to ask the question that occurred to me in that moment, regarding causes, but my uncle seemed to have remembered something. He leaned over the side of the dugout and pulled on the string that hung down into the water, and brought up a bottle of beer. He got out his jackknife, cut it free, popped the lid off into the stinking bilge, and handed me the bottle. It was cool to the touch. How it had survived four days of dragging along behind the steamer, I had no idea. Then, from a second line, he snaked up another bottle, and cut it free for himself. And so we drifted, and drank our beers, as the day warmed, and talked about the countess – how kind and generous she had been. And how concerned she had been about my upbringing.

I must have had the questioning look again, because he winked, took a long swig and said, respectfully enough, I thought, “Very generous!” And with a whoop, more a croak that broke midway through, and no longer with any trace of the old mio babbino caro, threw his brown empty bottle – an act of littering – with an underhand sweep, high up over our heads, into the bright Brazilian morning – while we sat grinning, first checking to see it wasn’t going to land on our heads, then holding each other’s gaze, scamps who had escaped once more, far from the Niger and Vienna, and almost everything else, holding our breath, the sun warm on our backs, waiting for the bottle to fall. Waiting for the splash.

Danzón

She sat down in front of me, in one of the hundred or so metal chairs that the municipality had put out in the Veracuz’s Zócalo, facing the Porfirio band stand and, behind that, invisible because of night and the curve of the earth, one of the highest volcanoes in Central Mexico. I did not notice her particularly until she leaned forward and began putting on a pair of strapped dancing shoes. The heels were high but also broad enough to provide stable contact with the black and white tiles of the plaza. I suppose it’s the kind of thing I notice, a woman crossing one bare leg over the other, slipping on one shoe, then the other, in public, for dancing. For that was what the crowd had gathered for – for danzón – but mostly just to watch.

I realized I had seen her before, in fact on that very morning, in an old established restaurant, with high ceilings, slowly turning fans. She had been dressed in waitress black, with a lacy white apron in front, her urraca-black hair pulled back in a bun, low shoes, un-shined, a woman of forty, maybe a little bit more, with white teeth, dark eyebrows, full lips, and a chin that fell away toward her long neck – a beauty who was a mixture of an ancient New World people, and Spanish or Portuguese blood, at least in my imagination. She reminded me also of a friend, who is Otomi from the State of Veracruz – which would very likely make her the recent descendent of a people who had been resisting the genocidal policies of government for the last four or five hundred years.

I had ordered tea, “con la bolsa al lado,” the bag to one side. I intended to use my own bag of green tea instead. She also brought me muffins, cupcakes really, sweet yellow things – which I had not ordered. I assumed it was an establishment obligation. That one couldn’t just order tea without having something else.

I had watched her clear tables, then serve a table of important businessmen next to me, who had skin much lighter than hers. I watched for signs of condescension. I did not see any. I watched for interest they might have in her pleasing figure, her striking face, and darker skin. The only person who showed any real interest was myself. I do not know why particularly. But in retrospect, I suspect it was because of her dignity, also because of my ignorance about her city, her culture, the complexities of her life.

Because she had brought them to me, and because I break my rules at the slightest provocation, I ate all three cupcakes. I read my La Jornada, Mexico’s national opposition newspaper. I watched her when she passed by.

When I had to go, I asked for the bill. She brought it in a little basket. I pointed to the three empty crumb-covered red cupcake papers. “Qué mala tentación fue eso!” I said, in my Spanish. “What an wicked temptation that was!” For a moment, I wasn’t sure she had understood either my Spanish or my way of conversing with people in general, or both.

Then her faced changed and she said, in good humor, “Ah, but now they’re gone, and it’s all over.”

I’m not even sure she met my eyes as she said this, gathering up my dishes – and not the moment later, when she took my fifty-peso note, nor the moment after that, when she returned my change.

Now, in the Zócalo, she was wearing a below-the-knee black dress with small red flowers, perhaps hibiscus. Her urraca-black hair fell shoulder length. I watched the dancers, then her, while she sat in her metal folding chair, in front of me. It seemed evident she had come to dance danzón, but she was not dancing. She watched dancers. I watched, too, trying to understand their steps, the way couples seemed to know to pause, now and then, for a whole beat. At times, I suppose signaled by the music, the dancers concluded a series of steps, then separated, still holding hands, and faced the band stand.

A man had approached. His skin was lighter than hers. She stood up to greet him. He had not dressed up to quite the same extent. In fact, he had not changed from his work clothes, which were lightly covered with stone dust. He had passed something over his black work shoes, but that was all.

I tried to measure his relationship with her. There was something reserved about it. But that is also the nature of danzón. Formal movements from French contra dance, later passing through Haiti, then Cuba, arriving at this port city of fine coffee, high ceiling fans, coral walls, grand buildings in black and white stone, and handsome women.

They danced, formally, but with no more than two hand widths between them. They looked each other in the eye. They floated through a variety of steps, sliding rather than stepping into the next position. One, one-two. One, one-two. That is, one long step, followed by two quick steps – here and there, the infinitesimal hesitations.

I could not tell how well they knew each other. That was, I decided, the key to danzón. Public, formal, the hint of sensuality, understated, completely proper. He seemed handsome, not because he was, but because of how he held himself, and what he knew. He directed her firmly. She followed. He looked into her eyes, she into his, both with a respect and appreciation, and both smiling. Not broadly, rather from muted pleasure. She was elegant in her high heels and her hibiscus dress. Of those who danced or watched, they were not from the highest social class. But, of the fifteen or so couples that danced, it was clear the audience found them the most striking.

At the end of a song – how many had they danced? Two, three? He escorted her back to her metal chair. She did not sit. She watched him pick up his dusty backpack and put it on. He put on his baseball cap, faded olive, with a frayed visor. He held out his hand. She held out hers. He leaned forward, slowly, and kissed her on the cheek. She held his elbow. There was a moment, when she seemed to resist his leaning away again. He said something, without smiling, and she said something back, still holding his hand. And then their hands drew apart, and he turned away. I saw him retrieve an old black bicycle from one of the great palm trees at the south edge of the Zócalo and, pushing it, move out of sight behind the wall of onlookers.

She had sat down again. I watched her. I watched the dancers. The band, up in the bandstand, played more Cuban-Mexican tunes. I stood no more than ten feet from her. At one point, I glanced over and saw her looking at me. I held her gaze longer than I usually do with a woman I don’t know. Perhaps because I felt I knew her, even though I didn’t know her. I looked back at the dancers. She got up. I saw her moving, in the corner of my eye. She was going to pass close by. She stopped in front of me. She pointed at a spot on my chest, then toward the other dancers.

“No puedo,” I said. “I don’t know how.”

She reached out for my hand. She led me out away from the spectators. She showed me the simple box step, and eventually, when she said “Pausa!” – with the accent on the last syllable – I learned to pause at the end of the series of one, one-two’s.

We danced two dances. She looked in my eyes. I looked into hers. I saw friendliness, generosity, pleasure, and a suggestion of intimacy that was not intimacy at all. Something I did not understand. When the music stopped, she walked us back to her chair. I stood along side, awkwardly, as she changed her shoes, crossing first one leg, then the other. She carefully put the shoes in a cheap plastic bag with handles. She put on her scuffed black low heel shoes. She stood up, a little shorter now, and held out her hand. Several older women, on both sides of us, were taking it in – watching, but not intrusively. She said, “Gracias!” I said “Gracias!” and bowed slightly at the waste, the way my mother taught me. She held my hand an instant longer. “Qué mala tentación fue, pero ya se terminó,” she said. A strong temptation, but now it’s over – with a look in her eye, a little bit of mischief, a trace of sadness.

I nodded.

“Not the muffins,” I said.

“No,” she said, and gave my hand a little squeeze.

“And not me,” I grinned.

“No, not you, either.” That made her smile. She dropped my hand, but leaned forward, and kissed me on the cheek. Then she picked up the thin plastic sack with her dancing shoes, and walked in the opposite direction to the one her dance partner had taken, with his old black bicycle.

An Otter for a Hat

Somehow, when I was growing up, I neglected to get the full story of how my mother met my father. You could ask why it wasn’t the other way around: how he met and pursued her. But it didn’t happen that way at all, and if you had known him, you would understand why. He was not a man who was capable of pursuit. He was a man who only knew how to love. And my mother, a profoundly private person – while still giving and generous to all who knew her — I think wished to protect that part of him from all scrutiny, including from her own children.

I knew it had something to do with an animal, but I didn’t know exactly which one. Because there had always been so many of them around our home and family. Pensive, conversational Rhode Island Red hens who, generation after generation, had the wisdom to get the roosters to perch on the outside, so the raccoons would take them first. A drop calf now and then, that grew into an 800-pound friend that always had to have her ears scratched. Goats that stood on the chicken house roof when it was time to milk them. And a pig or two that loved holes with water in them, so they could romp and splash and squeal and carry on in the heat of summer.

It was none of these. I know, because I asked her about them – albeit at twenty-five year intervals. But she was always cagey. She brought such inquiries to a swift conclusion. I’ll tell you when it’s the right time, she would say. Not now. Not while your father’s alive. But when he died, and she went on living, I forgot to ask again, and another twenty-five years went by. And then it was too late.

Not too long ago, an ancient aunt of mine died, at the age of 96, and her daughter found a book: “David Copperfield,” by Charles Dickens. With my father’s name written on the first leaf. In my mother’s hand, with the words: “To the man who loves me so well.” And then the date: 1962, when my father was also 62. And then my mother’s name: “Elizabeth.”

Yellowed and pressed between the pages of that novel – this much I do know, it was always my father’s favorite book – was a short manuscript written by my uncle Ed, my father’s devoted younger brother, who died many years before my father. At the top of the first page was a note: “For their children, when the time is right – and when I have Elizabeth’s permission.” And then the text, in the measured, if no longer steady, hand of a man who had already had more than one stroke.

This is the text of that manuscript, the one in our Uncle Ed’s trembling hand, otherwise impossibly neat, for us – our parents’ children – explaining how they met, our mother and our father, and told without our mother’s permission. The friend referred to, the “travel writer,” is none other than my own father.

“He was a man who looked good with a cat under his arm.
The trouble was his propensity for wearing them on his head. Some say this was because he lacked so much hair. He didn’t really do it that often. More on festive occasions. Once it was other things. A goose, white with an orange knob where the beak met the skull. Once an otter that had come up the stream, climbed the small plank dam, and entered the pond. It was a young one, ill with an infection, from a bite to the head by our domesticated Canada goose, who did not tolerate innocence. Mr friend, the travel writer, nursed the young otter, befriended it, coaxed it out of its wildness, and eventually – and this is the truth that I’m telling you, whereas before I took some leeway – so eventually this otter and my friend’s delights coincided, and the otter rode – his favorite place – with his hind feet splayed out, one on each shoulder, his forepaws across my friend’s bushy blond eye brows, and its warm belly draped over my friend’s bald and otherwise usually chilly head.

This is how my friend came to meet his wife Elizabeth, the great beauty of our town, whom men in suits and with education and shining cars and clever language traveled miles to visit and impress and court, to the extent she would let them.

It so happened that one day my friend went on a trip – to the neighboring large city, took the ferry, he rode the tram and, dressed in his best clothes – a shapeless tweed jacket, dark slacks, and the blue shirt with the least fraying around the edges of the collar – entered a well-known theater. Holding a lump of something in a raincoat he had brought along, he seated himself and watched “The Importance of Being Earnest,” by Oscar Wilde.

The play brought much laughter from the finely dressed, elegantly poised audience: the men with broad, confident, indulgent grins; the women with their long necks, strings of pearls, and hair piled stylishly but not too primly on their heads. If you had sat behind my friend, who was enjoying himself immensely and laughing along with the rest of the audience, you would not have been able to tell him from all the other women, because he too would seemed to have been simply another woman with her hair piled fashionably on top of her head.

It so happened that Elizabeth had gone to the same play in the same city, escorted by a man of stature, income, wit, and breeding, and was sitting two rows and directly behind my friend. The laughter had affected everyone, and people turned to each other, shaking their heads and remonstrating that the situations in the drama were just too funny. Perfect strangers exchanged warm, even defenseless smiles and appreciation – when a small cry appeared between the moments of laughter, punctuated the space between two spoken lines. A woman cried out, a muffled shriek I suppose it was, commotion and pointing, heads bending toward each other to confirm what had been seen – a strange animal climbing down from a man’s head and then reappearing, peeking backward over the man’s shoulders, first this side then the other and once, it seemed, looking straight at Elizabeth, who, it turned out, loved animals and especially otters.

Her escort snorted and said, Did you see that? That man is very strange. The things people do to get attention. Parrots on their shoulders, and so forth, but this is really obnoxious. At the intermission, Elizabeth and her escort – his name was George and I am told he is not a bad fellow – moved toward a table and bought wine – red wine for Elizabeth and white wine for George, and watched people and talked. But the whole time Elizabeth watched for the man with the otter. She did not see him, nor did she see him after the play. At the posh delicatessen where the after-theater crowd went, she didn’t see him either. On the ride home she didn’t mention him. She listened to George. She tried to pay attention to what he was saying but she found it difficult. She declined to go to his home in the country not too far from our town. She did not return his call the following day and put him off for several days with various excuses that would seem plausible and in a manner that she could barely explain to herself.

George fell silent, punishing her, she was sure. She was relieved. Again she did not know why. The following weekend, declining all invitations, she spent time by herself. She took walks, visited an old schoolmate, a woman who was an artist and a very good one, and they enjoyed themselves, drinking a whole bottle of Merlot, sat in mottled sunlight, listened to the rustling poplars, walked together in the growing shadows, and finally parted.

Elizabeth strolled through the town and past the local theater group, who were performing Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” and on an impulse she went in. The play was nearly over. She asked if she could just watch the last bit of it and was given permission. The actors were not professionals, and yet, as is often the case, they seemed fresher and more alive. They delivered their lines with great skill, and she regretted not having come earlier. She was glad to be alone, enjoying the play, the humble building and stage, the phenomenon of small town drama, and being with the kind of people who could relish Shaw and not have to wear suits and pearls and drive shining cars and make glittering conversation.

In the middle of this appreciation, this moment of thankfulness, she felt a tug on her jeans. She was sitting in the back row on the right, on the center isle. She looked left, then down. An otter stood on its hind legs with its front paws on her knee, and the friendly bright curious face was looking up at her and seemed, she thought, to be smiling at her.

She sensed the person coming toward her. I’m sorry, he whispered, reaching over and lifting the otter and cradling it in under his arm. I’m really very sorry, he whispered again. You really don’t have to be, Elizabeth whispered back. I saw you in San Francisco, I think.

The Importance of Being Earnest? he said. It was not only a question, it was the beginning of a conversation, a fact not lost upon a large woman in the row in front of them, who turned part way around and said, Please!

Elizabeth stood up and walked out through the door to the lobby, with my friend and the otter, under his arm, following. He, my friend, and the otter, too, Elizabeth told me later, seemed to be smiling the same smile as they approached her.

And Elizabeth said something very simple and truthful. She said, You look good with an otter under your arm, and from that moment on they were together and have, I can attest, carried many kinds of animals under their arms and, when the occasions warranted, on their heads as well – and only with less frequency when they began to carry their children in those places, who – I have always been convinced – learned that position through the imitation of animals they had seen riding there before them.”

That was my uncle’s text. But story is not quite over. Years after the first stroke, that took my mother’s speech, and after many succeeding smaller ones, that paralyzed her right arm and shoulder. And long after she appeared to no longer recognize her children — including me, it seemed, I was summoned by the nursing home staff to my mother’s side. It was about 3 AM on a Monday morning in April, in the midst of our apple blossom period. It had been no more than a month since my Uncle Ed’s manuscript had come into my hands. My mother lay on her back, shriveled and small and, as far as I could see, uncomprehending.

I sat with her, holding her good hand, which she held in a fist, I supposed, because of another small stroke. I cupped it with both my hands, and we sat that way, watching each other – her eyes clouded from cataracts, mine from lack of sleep. I must have dozed off at one point. I felt a tugging, and I brought my head up with a jerk. She was trying to move her lips, and then whatever effort she was about became – unmistakable – a smile. And her good hand, her left one, opened slowly, as slow as dawn, as slow as apple blossoms in the hills around us. Her hand opened and my cupping hands opened with it.

And on her palm – that leathery center – lay a small, smooth, carved stone animal – an otter – no bigger than half a thumb. I picked it up and held it and turned it, and then did as I had been trained over so many years to do – through imitation, I agree – placed it on the top of my own balding head and kept it there to her quite clear delight and toothless old smile – until, after some minutes and tugs at my hand to show her pleasure, her hand began to relax in mine and her old smile – I mean the one I’ve always known –changed, and she grew serene. And I returned the otter to her palm, pressed it into its rightful place, and watched as the old good hand slowly closed back over it, until her eyes – still watching mine – were calm, and finally still.

Dawn

When my first wife died, I told my father I didn’t think I could ever love anyone again. He, in turn, out of habit, I suppose, must have told my Grandfather Edwin. My grandfather was older than old, and very senile. He could still walk about and speak a few sensible words, but otherwise he didn’t really exit at all. Occasionally I spent the night with them –my father, my mother, and Edwin – to extend the visit, and be with them just a little bit longer. Because I was very lonely.

Early one morning – it could not have been five o’clock – Edwin ghosted into my room and lay something on my chest, already heavy with grief. Then he brushed a boney hand over my forehead and sailed away, vanishing into the pre-dawn darkness, like a ship of sail setting out to sea.

At that point, he had me wide awake. I turned on the light and found he had given me a volume of a diary, bound in leather and brittle with age. A faded maroon ribbon marked a page that was dated September 18, 1925. The script was a tired black ink, the small careful flowing script of the mining engineer that he had once been. I squinted my eyes, furrowed my brow, and began reading.

“Yesterday was grey and rainy. In Belgrade, long before any sign of dawn, holding my breath against the combined bite of brown coal and unclean steam, I boarded the Oostende – Istambul Simplon Express, and stumbled immediately toward the dining car. The train was beginning the second or third day of its run north, I was not sure which. I was only hoping that its supply of thick dark coffee had not been exhausted.

There was only one passenger sitting in the dining car. He was a man like me in his middle years. He nodded immediately, with a friendliness that two solitary travelers sometimes grant each other, so that I continued in his direction, shaking out my raincoat as I went. I hesitated, as if the possibility existed that I would sit at my own table, next to my own dark window. But he gestured at the seat across from him and in an accented German – on the assumption I suppose that I was on my way to Berlin – said, “Sit here, my friend, and we will wait for the dawn together.”

The night waiter brought me my dark, thick Turkish coffee and sweet Greek rolls. My new acquaintance, a Hungarian and by coincidence also an engineer, continued with the second half of a bottle of a good German Riesling. We talked about our children, our careers, our youthful dreams, and as the first grey of dawn revealed the dark hills on the left side of the train – with the help of a second bottle of the German Riesling – we moved on to the most painful loves we had ever known.

His was a seventeen-year old beauty who was a gifted painter and was bound for art school in Budapest, and was the kindest, sweetest, most gentle and joyful person he had ever known. She had begun coughing during their encounters, in secret spots known only to them, in the meadows and woods, and as time went by, she grew paler and paler, lost weight, and in a year was dead from tuberculosis. After they buried her, on a brilliant Indian summer day, at the side of a quiet lake, in a clearing surrounded by ancient beech trees, her mother led him back to the house and indicated a large flat package that Sophie had intended him to have.

He returned to the university on the night train and sat down in his small student room. He placed beeswax candles, two of them, one on each side of the package. When dawn came many hours later, he carefully removed the common string and thick brown paper, and found a portrait of himself and Sophie, together – golden, young, and glowing in a way that kept him staring, until the first rays of morning sun rose up and flow over the edge of the frame.

“Just the way the sun has found our table at this very moment, my patient friend,” he said.

At that, the conductor entered the dining car, came half way to the table and said somewhat conspiratorially, I thought, “We’re here.” My acquaintance stood up, left a large bill on the table, gathered his coat and small canvas traveling bag, shook my hand graciously, and left the car. The Soplon Express slowed, shuddered almost to a stop, then immediately glided forward again, accelerating, as smooth as the smoothest European technology.

From the window next to the table, on the left side of the train, I saw him descending on a path toward a village with an onion dome church, some distance below the level of the rail bed, still un-touched by the sun. On the trail, climbing toward him, I saw a lovely poised woman reach both hands out to him, then hold him in her arms. Two children held his legs, one on each side. And while the angle of my view still made it possible, and by learning forward and pressing my head against the far edge of the window, I saw him turn and wave at me, with the same cordiality he had offered me when I entered the dining car, in that cold dark period of night before dawn.”

I turned off the light and closed the diary. In the grey light outside beyond my window, I could see Edwin standing motionless in his pajamas, barefoot, where it must have been quite cold, staring at something he appeared to be seeing. Each time that day, when he drifted by, he stopped and turned toward me and raised his bushy white eyebrows, as if asking a question. And each time I nodded my head and said, “Yes, I think I understand. Yes, I think I know why.”

A week later, he lay down and died, out on the lawn, in the same spot, in the cold of the early morning. They closed his eyes, but it took some time before they could make him lower his brows. For a while, I thought they had been raised for my benefit. But as the years have gone by, I have come to think that, in the moment, his brows might have been asking a different question, one directed toward himself, or perhaps toward someone he had loved, and still loved – first during his life, then right on into that long period when he no longer existed, but had not yet stopped living.

Underground Amphibians

Guanajuato, Mexico has a lovely rare book library in the Jardín Reforma, mildly rococo, smelling of bee’s wax, with wooden balconies for book access. It is reminiscent of the eighteenth century, oval Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany, before its devastating fire in 2004. It is part of La Dirección de Archivos y Fondos Históricos (DAFH), The Office of Historical Archives and Collections, of the University of Guanajuato. To touch a book, you must wear sterilized gloves.

My neighbor works there as an archivist. She once asked me to help them translate the titles and tables of content of old German books, to facilitate their cataloging. I dropped in unannounced, so they had to run around and assemble the books I was to work with. This took a little time. While I waited, my eyes fell on a folder that lay on the great oak table in front of me. To pass the time, and being by disposition nosy, I opened the folder a little and looked inside.

I found several yellowed pages of an article that had been submitted to what must have been an earlier version of the Chopper, the city’s thin weekly for history, news, and cultural events. The title of the first page read “Anfibios Subterráneos,” “Underground Amphibians.” A neat pencil annotation gave the date 1945, followed by question mark–which I thought might apply to the subject, or to the reliability of the date.

After performing my German translations, I asked my neighbor the archivist if I could photocopy the article. What follows is a rough translation of a text written by a Miguel Ibarra Chico, a state mining archeologist whose job had been to explore and map the 300-odd kilometers of tunnels and shafts that lay below the municipality of Guanajuato. This is his text:

“José Luis María Finbar was the name of a miner who works at the Canadian-run mine Las Torres, in Calderones, a few miles up above La Presa. His ancestors lie in the quiet, shaded English miners’ graveyard that looks down from the bluff above Real del Monte, on the outskirts of Pachuca. Finbar is the man who was once fired for bringing a turtle to work.

Tall and broad-shouldered, with a spot of white in the front of his red hair, he confessed that he put the turtle in his lunch bucket and brought it out for the break at approximately four in the morning, one quarter of a mile or 402 meters below ground. The temperature at that depth–although it was January and wintry on the surface–was 45.5 Celsius, or 114 degrees Fahrenheit, even with the pumped-in ventilation.

The turtle, still young and as long as a thumb, grew active in the heat, crawled through the muck toward the shaft head and the horizontal blast hole Finney had just gotten through drilling with the company’s very expensive Hendy caterpillar drilling rig. The miners–six of them, seven of them including Finney–watched the turtle’s progress. No one moved. It was the break, after all, and it was quiet, except for the hiss of the carbide lamps on their helmets. All seven beams focused on the turtle as it crawled forward.

At such depth, miners can form quick attachments to living things, and so they were concerned when the creature found respite from the heat by crawling into the blast hole.

For some minutes, they sat on their buckets and chewed on their cold aguacate and frijol tacos, until one of them said, “Finbar, you’ve lost your turtle.”

Finbar approached the hole, some seven centimeters across, took off his hardhat, got on his hands and knees in the muck, held the reflector of the carbide lamp and the hardhat up to the hole, and looked in behind it. He saw nothing. For all he knew, the turtle had crawled to the far end of the drill hole. He estimated it could be three meters away from him. It was four fifteen in the morning. They were to back out the driller and set the charge and be ready to give the signal–a simple electric bell–at four thirty.

The shot setter Francisco Ramirez unwrapped the charges. He looked at Finney. “What are we going to do?” he asked. Finney studied the hole, without replying. The turtle was his friend, and he wasn’t going to blow it up just to get at the silver. The other six miners looked at Finney. They were leaving the decision up to him.

Francisco Ramirez sensed the drift things were taking and began carefully repacking the charges in their brown waxed paper and lay them gently back in their wooden box. The miners picked up their lunch buckets. Finney backed the driller away from the shaft head, making them all cough from the fumes. At the proper distance, he shut it down.

A light came down the shaft. The Canadian supervisor asked, “What’s going on, Finbar?”

Finney didn’t know what to say. It was hard to think in the heat, standing in the warm muck, turning things over in his mind. The other miners respected life below ground. Sweat lines streaked their dust-covered faces. They could barely hear the supervisor’s voice. The roar of the driller had deafened them. They dreaded what was about to happen.

“Finbar!” they saw the supervisor mouth.

To Finbar, the priorities were very clear. A frown covered his entire forehead. In distress, and showing the whites of his eyes, he bellowed, “The turtle is in the drill hole.”

The supervisor had jowls. He stared at Finney, trying to understand. He spoke slowly. “You have twelve minutes to set the charge,” he said, holding up a finger.

The other six miners’ lamps turned toward Finney, who was considering his choices. Ursula and he had no children. She worked at the Presidencia. Her job was secure. She would be angry and make the house chilly for a week, but she loved him and would stand by him. He could kill the Canadian supervisor. But that broke the commandment about life below ground. Still, in the heat, he saw it as an option. But the man had three children, and he couldn’t blame them for being gringos. Or, he could feign mental illness. He could drop in a faint. He could pretend a heart attack.

The supervisor followed him, stumbling back over the hoses, through the muck and debris, to the shaft head. The bobbing lights of the other six miners came along behind. The turtle had not emerged, and Finbar made his decision. He turned around and walked past all of them, with a strong step, and accepted the supervisor’s pronouncement to the back of his head that he was fired, and wasn’t it stupid–all for a pinche tortuguita, a little goddamn turtle.

A new light bobbed toward them, passed Finney in the tunnel, and stopped in front of the supervisor. There had been a phone call, said the new arrival. On a level below them a small turtle had come walking out of a crack in the shaft head, and did the supervisor know what to make of it?

The supervisor knew exactly what to make of it. Finney’s self-propelled Hendy driller had drilled into a void of some kind: a geological fault, an ancient landslide, a washout millions of years old, or an mine shaft from earlier times, for which any record had been lost. The void, through which the turtle had passed, vented out onto the working level below Finney’s level. That meant that, if the shot had been fired, and if the blast had not been burdened by solid rock around charge, Finney’s shaft level, the one below it, and maybe one or two above it could have collapsed, crushing god knows how many men, and taking all kinds of machinery with it.

When Finney stepped out of the lift cage and out under the morning stars, he was greeted by miners from the new shift, who all took off their hard hats and looked at him with stunned expressions. Word had already spread, somewhat altered, that Finney’s turtle had saved them from being buried alive. Finney interpreted their looks as censure and walked straight ahead toward the dressing shed. When he came out, he found his supervisor standing in front of him. The supervisor held the little turtle up for Finney to see. More and more miners, the new shift and now most of the old shift, had gathered.

The supervisor–impressed by his audience–held a speech in which he extolled the value of turtles in mine shafts and how it would be the company’s policy from now on to introduce small turtles into blast holes to explore for voids. The assembled miners nodded their heads politely, but then shifted their eyes to see Finney’s reaction, which was not long in coming.

Finney reached out for his turtle, put it in his lunch bucket, clicked the top, turned around, and marched up the hill toward the bus stop, but not before exclaiming that there were enough living things at risk underground already, and that they didn’t have to add defenseless amphibians who were innocent and would be sacrificed by the thousands unnecessarily, and that the company should map the mines better and study the void phenomenon by making use of scientific breakthroughs which would be able to look through rock and see the dangers.

No one knew what he was talking about, but after a week had passed and Finney had calmed down, the company operating officer, recognizing a leader of men when he saw one, went to Finney and Ursula’s green cantera–rock–house in Calderones and hired him back on as a supervisor. Finney accepted but only on the condition that the company raise the wages of all the miners four pesos per week and renounce any plans for the exploitation of underground amphibians, including snakes, mice, and wild birds other than canaries.

From then on, miners under Finney’s supervision called him La Tortuga, the Turtle. That year, he was awarded the Miner of the Year Award by the president Manuel Ávila Camacho himself, in the capital’s Zocalo, before thousands of miners who had been bussed in by PRI officials, who hoped to co-opt Finney into serving their political ambitions. When interviewed by the press, Finney observed, when asked about it, that he had little interest in running for president of the country as long as miners continued to risk their lives unnecessarily below Mexico’s hallowed ground for still below-subsistence pay. At which point, all of the major political voices, not just the PRI, warned that La Tortuga was a populist who threatened the nation’s institutions and stability and was therefore an insult to the dignity of Mexico.”

That is the end of the text. I returned several times to Guanajuato’s rare book library, to help with the volumes in German. The last time, I found a folder with a picture of Finney standing with his three children–late arrivals–at the side of a large tortoise, at the León zoo. Underneath it, there was a second clipping, bordered in black, about a failed blast in the Las Torres mine, which vented into a unknown void and dropped six meters of peña, bedrock–the length of four railroad cars–on twenty five miners and their supervisor, one José Luis María Finbar, also once known fondly as La Tortuga.

Smart Women

Ponciano is the head of the demolition crew the city hired to remove the seven-story building that is across from the Café Nada. The Café Nada is where I write each morning. Ponci is married to Lupita, a lovely solid Otomí woman with black eyes and amber skin. She is humble, but not common. She doesn’t read books, but she reasons better than most who do. Her husband Ponci reads, but to no great advantage, according to her. Pouring through the thoughts of people who are not particularly intelligent, she will say, serves little purpose. They use too many “that’s” and not enough “is’s.” That’s how she sees it.

Ponci has read journals on how to drop large buildings in their footprint. The city – a UNESCO Heritage Site and considered the Heidelberg of Mexico – was not interested and preferred to spend many hundreds of thousands of pesos running jackhammers day and night and driving the citizens crazy. But in this case, there was a deadline, and the building, made of concrete and rebar, was not coming down fast enough. The city would lose a contract with La Bohême, a slick restaurant chain for people with money, if the site wasn’t cleared and ready for construction by October 1st. It was already September 15th. The mayor said they would not pay the second half of the city’s contract with Ponci if his crew had not brought the structure down by September 21.

Ponci said he would stop right then, if they weren’t going to pay. The city said they would prosecute him for breach of contract. Ponci said, renegotiate with La Bohême. The city said, you demolish the building, we run the city. Ponci received a letter from the State Government. They were sending inspectors to see if Ponci was complying with state-prescribed safety measures. Ponci replied, they knew perfectly well there were no safety laws, and he would make a citizen’s arrest of anyone who entered the demolition site without his permission. The mayor said, by telephone, there was no such thing as a citizen’s arrest, and he would send the police to preserve order. Ponci replied that the police would need a warrant and show probable cause before stepping on the lot. La Bohême sent a letter to the city newspaper saying they were looking at other sites. That was the 18th, three days before his deadline.

Ponci also read the newspaper, and so, one evening after work, he saw the La Bohême letter. He read it aloud to Lupita. “Why would anyone give a restaurant chain a French name?” he asked. Lupita said nothing. Ponci picked up one of his journals. Lupita studied him from across the kitchen. He looked up. Her face was as beautiful as it was when he met her at a church dance twenty years ago. She was heavier but perfect in all respects.

She left the room. She returned carrying a box. She set it down on the table, in front of him. The side of the box said detonadores, fuses. He leaned forward and turned back the lid. He looked inside with intense curiosity, as if he didn’t know what it contained. He looked slowly. Lupita was smarter than him. He needed time to catch up.

Finally, he said, “You think we can do it?”

“We can do it, Ponci,” she said.

“How many do we need?”

“People?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“You and me. Maybe get Carlos and David. That’s enough. It’s just getting dark. We can work till dawn.”

He looked at Lupita. He revisited the fact that she usually knew what she was doing. He got up and held her wide, soft body against him. And then he said, “Okay, I’ll make the calls.”

“But don’t we have to drill a lot of holes?” she said, softly in his ear.

“I’ve already drilled them,” he said, back into her ear. “I told the men it was for practice.”

She held him at arm’s length, studying him again.

He winked at her.

At the first gray of dawn, the building was wired – two sticks of Simplex per drill hole, time-delay blasting caps set to weaken the lower columns first, total detonation time six seconds, each explosion timed by a fraction of a second to precede the one above it. All the wires led to a firing station out by the road. There would be no test shot. There would be no consultation with the city.

They told Carlos and David to stand by the detonator box at the firing station. Ponci disconnected the trunk wire to the box, so there would be no mistakes. The red detonation button was recessed. That was a further precaution.

Ponci and Lupita walked through the building one more time.

“You’re good at this, Ponci,” she said. “Maybe reading the journals is a good thing.”

“You’re a wonderful woman,” said Ponci. “You’re smarter than me in just about everything.”

They were on the ground floor, in the middle section.

“Show me how you connect them,” Lupita asked. “All I did was push in the charges.”

Ponci nodded. He disconnected the wiring to one of the foam-covered charges.

“Maybe you should disconnected this whole section,” said Lupita. “Just in case.”

Ponci looked at her. They didn’t really have much time, but he trusted her thinking. He untwisted the wire that connected the entire middle section. He came back to the Lupita. He showed her how to do a connection.

“You try,” he said. “You can do it with ease.”

In that moment, Carlos, out by the road – understandably tired – stumbled on a stray piece of escombro, and went down. The wire that had been disconnected from the detonator box as a precaution shed its security cap and fell back against its contact. Carlos landed on the box. His imitation Swiss Army knife, in a pouch on his belt, angled perfectly into the recessed firing button and depressed the button to the required depth.

Like any early morning mining blast, the rolling shot rattled the city – except that it went on for six seconds. And it was above ground. The structure melted, kneeled, and came down, perfectly, on its footprint. And then everything was quiet again, and the city seemed to keep on sleeping.

A thunderhead of cement dust billowed upward and out. Carlos and David staggered toward the site, gaunt-eyed from embarrassment and horror. They had broken the most important rule of all, which was not to kill the two finest people they knew.

They stopped, swaying, and peered through the dust. The bricks and concrete slabs, with their twisted and snapped rebar, had fallen everywhere – except in the middle of the building, where, inexplicably, the lowest – in the center – room, with thicker walls and ceiling, was still standing. Through an opening, they saw two dust-covered people holding each other, kissing, alternately laughing and crying and, finally, because of what had happened to their ears, shouting endearments to each other too private for anyone to hear.

Which is when Carlos and David decided to go home and sleep. They weren’t paid enough to answer to anyone for what they had done. They also didn’t want to be there when the police arrived. And the mayor, and the newspapers, and, soon enough – because that’s the way things went – the agents for La Bohême, safety inspectors who might actually exist, and – worst of all – the powerful governor of the State, who might or might not cite them all as criminals, depending on how the event turned out to reflect on him.

Skin Doctor

On the last Thursday in July, I went to the dermatologist. She is the wife of an important academic leader, whose picture appears frequently in the local newspaper. He is known for speaking for a long time at inaugurations, openings, dedications, and other mind-numbing events. His wife, my dermatologist, has an office in the gentile section of the Old City. It is an area that reminds me of the Dahlem district of Berlin, with trees, fine buildings, and the lingering air of empire. A receptionist of great beauty, with painted eyebrows and a blush of rouge, greeted me. With reserve. Her eyes took in my face, my hands, and the spot on the end of my nose. She asked me to be seated. A thin woman with a rash on her face moved to the far end of couch. I nodded to her, thanking her. She smiled, sadly.

In a while, the thin woman with the rash was summoned to enter the doctor´s office. The door closed behind her. In five minutes the door opened and the thin woman came out, with tears in her eyes. She handed the lovely receptionist with painted eyebrows a slip of paper. The receptionist read it, then gave the woman a stern look.

“You are to take three kinds of creams.” She spun around in her swivel chair, leaned over, and opened a low cabinet.

Tubes of medicinal creams, some in boxes, some not, fell out. The revealed patch of skin between her blouse and skirt was as pale as a baker’s compost. A little east of her spine, I saw a tattoo of a beetle. It was ascending. Its right side had an extra leg. That made seven in all. I thought the extra leg might have been for luck. Except that the area around it was red and inflamed. She rooted around in the cabinet, this lovely beetle-backed receptionist, with the painted eyebrows. More tubes of cream, boxed and un-boxed, fell out. She snatched up one tube, then another, and finally the third, which had lain hidden at the bottom of the pile, and in back.

She spun around again, wrote something on the slip of paper, and said, “That´s 3,000 pesos for the cream, 500 pesos for the consultation. 3,500 pesos in all. Read the doctor’s instructions carefully.”

She placed the three boxes, so that they were parallel to the sides of the desk, and exactly the same distance apart. I divided the total charge by ten, to get an estimate, in dollars. The thin woman with the rash stood as still as stone. The lovely receptionist spun around again, showed her beetle, and shoveled the rest of the spilled creams back into the cabinet, drumming them against the metal rear panel. I started to count the beetle’s legs again, but it was too late, and she spun back around.

“I only have 500 pesos, “said the thin woman. “I don´t have any more.”

“Fine,” said the receptionist. She scooped up the three boxes, spun around again, and with intimidating force threw the three boxes of creams back into the cabinet. The thin woman hesitated, then lay ten 50-peso notes on the desk, one on top of the other, askew. Perhaps to prove it was all she had. The receptionist snatched them up and put them in her purse, then sat Katrina-like, Day of the Dead, as if the transaction were over. The thin woman, her eyes glistening with tears, turned and fled out the door and into the hallway.

I stood up, unsure.

“Sit down, “the lovely receptionist snapped.

I sat down. A buzzer buzzed. “You may go in,” said the receptionist.

The doctor met me at the door. Her skin was gray with patches of pink. Her hair fell to her shoulders and was dyed black, with streaks of ultramarine blue. I found her exceptionally attractive. Her diagnosis was grave.

“You have to burn all that damage off your face. You will not be able to sleep much at all for two weeks. Your face will be red and open sours will appear. Slice open five centimeters of an aloe spear. Smear the juice all over. Generally speaking, there is no relief. Each of the three tubes I´m prescribing costs $130 US dollars. I will give you a break on the visitation. 450 pesos. That will be 4,545 pesos. Please pay the receptionist. She will give you the creams.”

I divided by ten. She began writing out the prescription and instructions. I asked if I could use the bathroom. I locked the door behind me. I peed a pitiful nervous stream. I opened the window and climbed out. I walked down an alley. As I turned the corner, I saw the receptionist in the clinic door. She held a piece of paper. I broke into a run. I was just getting my stride, when she knocked my feet out from underneath me. I landed hard on the pavement, face down. She sat on my back. She reached the paper around and held it in front of my face.

“You should have a little more confidence, “she said.

She let me turn over, but still sat on me. Each of her exposed knees – lovely in shape – had a red caterpillar tattooed on it. She held the paper in both hands, in front of my face. Too close for me to focus.

“What is it?” I asked, trying to move my head back away from the paper. She adjusted the reading distance for me.

“A list of alternative treatments,” she said. “Follow the directions.”

I saw a column of images on the left, in red. Each one showed a creature. In the middle was the dose required. At the far right was the application time. The first image looked like a cockroach, then, going down, came a worm, an ant, ant eggs – I supposed – a bee, a wasp, a crayfish, a fly, two types of beetles, and then the largest, what I assumed was a locust. At the bottom were small curved egg shapes.

“Maggots,” she said, tapping the bottom of the page. “They are the best thing for your skin. You don´t need to buy all those creams,” and she let the paper flutter down onto my chest. She reached in my pocket. She found 500 pesos, and added them to her purse, which was strapped across her chest.

“If you were twenty years younger, I would ravish you right here.” She said something else with a sweet smile, but a bus passed at that moment, drowning out her voice. I could not help it, my eyes grew moist. She got to her feet, modestly, placed a shapely leg and her low-heeled shoe on my crotch, and wriggled them suggestively, then turned, and walked away.

I stood up, dusted myself off, and studied the list with ever increasing concentration, as I walked slowly, with the flow of traffic, toward the center of the Old City – an area that doesn’t really remind me of Berlin at all.

Painting at Night

When the mountains grow cold and dark around my Mexican city, when night pours into this urban canyon and the wind begins to shake the tall small-paned windows of my house, deep down I feel there is something wrong, and I cannot sleep. This happened a few nights ago, and so I edged away from my sweet wife, bundled up in my warmest coat, and shuffled into my studio to paint.

I had been working for several sessions with a young model, slender and lovely, with urraca – black hair, and mouth tissue – a kind of pout – which stood away from her upper teeth and mandible.

I sat for some time sipping a hot coffee substitute of ground and roasted European grains, grown on Polish fields just downwind from Chernobyl, staring at the painting on the canvas, and pondering the difficulty of catching the essence of Mariana in Venetian Red, Raw Sienna, Cobalt Blue, and Flake White Replacement. Catch her youthful contours, her intelligence, the dark eyes, the downward twists in the corners of her mouth, the lower lip.

The windows rattled, and I was barely able to hear Dawn Upshaw singing Schubert lieder – the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Something stirred in the corner where Mariana usually sat. It was Lilus our black cat, I assumed, who ghosts around and irritates me with silent messages that I should restore the nocturnal order of snuggle and endless sleep and return to my place under the goose down, beside my softly breathing spouse.

I glanced again at the corner, at Mariana’s stool. There was a form, but it was larger than a cat and seemed to grow as I squinted through my sheepdog eyebrows. I turned down Mr. Schubert and looked again.

Apparently, someone had entered the room without me noticing.

“I didn’t see you enter,” I said, to my love.

“Guten Morgen,” said my visitor, in a voice of undetermined gender and, I suspect, from a hemisphere further east. “Noto que no puedethh dormir,” he said, in lisped Castilian, perhaps something older, less distinct or known. “Waz wirret dir?” he continued , mocking me with Wolfram’s medieval lingo, suggesting nether things, the prostate, the cusp of matters septuagenarian.

I cleared my throat. “Well, which will it be? German or Spanish? What century shall we settle on? What, modern languages out and doggerel in? Plus, uninvited? Whatever happened to introductions? Speak now or has the cat got your tongue?”

“I am your neighbor,” he exclaimed. “Dein Nachbar, vecino, fellow painter – pintor, Mahler, specializing, like you, in the faces of women too young for you. Pretty damsels.” He sneered a grin.

The wind howled, the windows rattled. I took a sip of my un-coffeed drink, now grown cold. I thought a bit and assessed my foe. “Insolent as well as trapped in babble,” I said, “I did not ask for your advice, you know. And it’s not my way to consort with rabble.”

He waved a dandy’s hand across my canvas. “There’s something missing, a je ne thais quoi. Like playing Mozart out of tune. The clarinet pure, the strings verstimmt, a quintet wrecked upon both sharps and flats, the smell of fish, the howl of cats.”

“An artist finds his way, solang’ er strebt,” I rebutted, in Knittelvers, a clever reference to Faust, “Prologue in Heaven,” the translation a little free, from the tip of my tongue: Eric Trunz, Hamburg edition, sixth printing, page twenty-three.

“But it takes so long, “ he said, with garlic breath. “There’s no guarantee. Arbeit macht den Brei. Qué sopa amarga! What scat and mess! I can show you a trick, if – behold the model – you lightly press.” And then, with a carny’s wink and a jab of his elbow, he said, “Pay a little attention, and I’ll do the rest.”

Immediately, I saw what he meant. Mariana’s right eyebrow had risen in a question, her lower lip trembled. The eyes followed me when I walked. My mouth hung agoggle, my face agawk.

“You’re not really young anymore,” he said. “Not much time to come at these things. Unlikely you’ll be known, visited by acolytes, let alone shown.”

He wagged his head at the painted cloth. Again I looked. It was better than Corbet, Manet, Morisot, Van Gogh. My head spun. Then Mariana gave a half-sneezed gentle tubercular cough.

“How would that look to your friends in their studios? Their knees would quake. You’d be compared to masterpieces pilfered by King George and Goering. You’d be in the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Frick, and on TV. And the ladies in pearls and tight dresses, you’ll have them stirring. You’d be the rake.”

The wind blew from the sierra. The doors clattered. “Alright, you ass, I admit I’m hooked. Let’s hear your price, your terms. But everyone knows, you consort with the devil and your goose is stewed, your knight gets rooked.”

I saw him smile, I’m not sure why.

“I like your rhyming, the suggestion of purse, not at all like a fly wrapped tight by his own Knittelvers. And as for the price, ” he said. “I give you perfect likeness, something essentially living, except to the touch. That too, if you think you’re a man, as much as such. But being successful and famous I think is what you want. Life is short, die Kunst ist lang. Just sign here.” He pointed to the bottom of the canvas. “You can’t go wrong.”

“I think I would feel better, if we switched back to prose,” I said. “A mistake could be costly, heaven knows. What’s the gimmick? I assume it’s my soul you’re after.”

“Well, right to the point,” he said. “I give you this, you give me laughter.”

“What?” I said. “Say that again. “

“I repeat,” he said. “I make you Rembrandt, then – no laughing thereafter.”

I thought about that, as quick as I could. It was what it was. A laughing matter.

“I don’t think I like it,” I said. “I couldn’t live without being funny.”

“Alright,” he said. “We’ll settle for something more like money.”

“You could take my soul,” I suggested, planning my pin. I had him here, perhaps even bested. For the simple truth is, though I’m in Mexico, I’m not theological. If I don’t have a soul, he really can’t take it. So when he gives me fame, I just fake it.

“Okay,” he said, and began receding again. “The interview’s over. We’ll talk more later. A little less Knittelvers eases the strain. The truth be known, a four-foot rhythm goes against my grain.”

I put down the brush that I’d held all along. I rubbed my eyes. And all that was left in the corner was a furry lump that swished her tail. It was Lilus our Mexican cat, on top of the stool, eyeing me rudely, staring too long.

“Go to bed,” she said, with mental telepathy. “The night grows pale. Forget what he said, and leave it at that. The Devil is nothing compared to a cat. Your place is in bed when everything blows. There are no short cuts to anywhere, as everyone knows. We do what we do, we snuggle together. Better we sleep the long sleep and stick to small things. By that I mean petting, then painting, then aging, love, purring and prose.”

[In the name of pedantry]
Mephistopheles is making an appearance in Mexico. As Goethe’s creation, he remains German, but of course can speak other languages: here, phrases occur in German, Middle High German, Spanish, and once in French.

Guten Morgen – German for Good Morning!

Noto que no puedeth dormir – Phoneticized Castilian Spanish (for puedes), or does the Devil simply lisp? I notice you can’t sleep.

Waz wirret dir? Medieval German: What is your distress? The ethical question Parzival does not put to the ailing Grail King in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic “Parzival,” It is unlikely here that the Devil’s concern is one of ethics.

Dein Nachbar, vecino: German, your neighbor; followed by Spanish, (your) neighbor.

pintor, Mahler: The first word is Spanish for painter; the second, German for painter.

Je ne thais quoi – A phrase that has to be said in French, in this case with a lisp (thais for sais): A certain something.

verstimmt: German for out of tune.

solang’ er strebt: a famous line out of Goethe’s Faust: Der Mensch irrt solang’ er strebt: A person errs as long as (s)he strives.”

Knittelvers: German for a type of four-beat line used in Goethe’s Faust.

Arbeit macht den Brei: A cynical echo of “Arbeit macht frei,” the slogan written over the entrance to Auschwitz? Here the final word is Brei, the German word for hot cereal, or simply a mess – suggesting that what this painter is producing isn’t very good.

Qué sopa amarga! Spanish: What a bitter soup!

Sierra: Spanish for mountains.

Die Kunst ist lang: Part of a famous phrase. Das Leben ist kurz, die Kunst ist lang, used by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust: Life is short, art is long. More babble to confuse and ensnare the neophyte.

iPod Sacred

I am in a bad mood. A foul mood. I have been listening to my personal listening device. I hear a Japanese flute, the sound of running water. The little readout says “sacred” music. That is the problem. Recorded “relaxing” commercially available music is not sacred. Anything labeled sacred, anything that comes up on the little screen, that is commoditized, partner to other uses, one of which is making money, is, says my spleen, un-sacred.

And so I scroll to Dawn Upshaw singing poems by Goethe, set to music by Schubert. Nothing sacred here, just a lovely, uplifting contralto voice.
After that, I scroll to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. And then I remember sitting in the protestant Thomas Church, the Thomaskirche, in Leipzig, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is the church where Bach was Cantor for many years. Bach died in 1750, one year after the birth of Goethe. Behind me, up in the choir loft, four people began singing, each following a different thread of the music. Was there a cello? Were there other strings? I heard the words Agnus Dei, Lamb of God, from the Mass. The song was sudden and glorious. I thought to myself, I am sitting in the middle of history.

I would say it was a sacred moment, if I had not just gotten through trashing that word. There were no more than six people below, sitting in the pews. A janitor pushed a wide broom, a member of the clergy arranged things on a table at the base of a large cross. Sun fell through the tall lead glass windows. The music washed over and past me – pulling me toward an earlier event.

Sixty-three years ago, in 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl, 25 and 22, brother and sister, dropped anti-fascist flyers down through the air vents in the ceiling of die Grosse Aula, the Great Lecture Hall, at the University of Munich, onto the heads of the attending students. Someone betrayed Hans and Sophie. They were arrested by the Gestapo and quickly guillotined. Agents tracked down their accomplices and executed them, as well.

Anita Pilger, one of the student conspirators, 20 years old, with the police on her heels, fled to Leipzig, then, by night, to the Thomaskirche. The attending assistant pastor Karl Bronner locked the doors. The Gestapo threatened to shoot them if they did not open up. Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner, a slim delicate man, asked Anita if she was Protestant. She said she was Catholic. He said it didn’t matter. She was a tall woman. Pastor Bronner asked her to take off her coat and shoes and dress. He put on her shoes and dress. She put on his clothes, his shoes were a little too big. He showed her a door where steps led down to an underground passageway. He gave her instructions. Then he kissed her on the forehead. He said he did not know how to give a proper Catholic blessing.

He pulled the anorak hood down over his head, unlocked the door and let himself out. His pale calves and the slight heel of his shoes were plain to see. Gestapo agent Christian Wegner put a Lugar to the anorak hood and shot Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner dead.

Anita Pilger escaped to Sweden, and then to England. For many years she taught music composition at the University of California at Berkeley. She had one child – a boy, whom she named Karl.

I listened to the four voices singing up in the choir behind me. Was the music sacred or secular? Maybe it was “sacred” as metaphor, as a moment of extreme beauty and meaningfulness, something that resonated with a foreknowledge of Bach, Latin, and German history, including all the currents, the ebb and flood, of grey fascist anger.

Didn’t Bach himself have to walk a narrow line between the religious and the secular? Wasn’t beauty, by its very nature, both secular and glorious – therefore contradictory, and therefore dangerous to the State? Probably not for the producers of relaxing “sacred” music.

If they had been present and set up, they could have recorded and then offered “spiritual” music from “Bach’s own church” – for purchase. I would have been able to download it into my device. The question is, what would it have evoked? Would it have shown Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner, or does that take a different kind of device? The one between the ears.

Rain was falling. He could hear it through the door. He stalled as long as he could. He opened the door, it was dark outside. He hung his head forward as he stepped out. Did the night air smell fresh and clean? He pulled the door closed behind him, and turned.

Gestapo agent Christian Wegner and three armed, cooperating city police stood on the same side of the door for a particular reason. When the small figure stepped out, Christian Wegner was glad she was wearing a hood. She wasn’t even looking at him. With one movement, he placed the Luger against her temple and pulled the trigger. The girl dropped. There was no spray from her blood, because of the hood.

He looked down at the exposed leg. There was hair on it. One of the policemen made a remark about not wanting a leg like that in bed with him. Christian Wegner poked at the body with the toe of his boot. Then he leaned over and pulled at the hood. The head was heavy. A policeman turned on his flash light. They could see that the traitor had short hair. Blood covered the side of her face.

“Ugly,” said one of the policeman.

Something bothered Christian Wegner. His eye began to twitch. Something stirred in his chest, looked for a more comfortable position, with teeth and tail. He ordered the police to pull up her dress. They saw a man’s underwear and evidence of male genitals. Christian Wegner raised the Luger. The policemen lurched backward out of the way. Christian Wegner fired a quick shot into Karl Bronner’s genitals. The ejected shell casing tinkled against the pavement. Then they turned and crashed through the church door in pursuit of Anita Pilger.

Outside, the rain fell on Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner’s exposed legs. The blood from his head seeped until it joined the blood from his underwear. The rain carried the blood to the street, where it found its way around cobblestones, to a drain in front of a building that had been a Cabaret during the Weimar years.

The blood entered the drain. The drain led to an arched underground drainage canal. The canal ran parallel to another underground passageway, the one that led from the Thomaskirche to the Matthiaskirche, the one which Anita Pilger now followed, barefoot, in men’s clothing. She held an altar candle in front of her, shaded with one hand, so she could see forward.

At one point, she had to step down into the great arched drainage canal and wade waist high through the mixture of Leipzig’s sewage, the soft spring rain, and the diluted blood from the temple and genitals of Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner. She did not see the blood.

In the Matthiaskirche, where the underground passageway came out, a surprised janitor led Anita Pilger to a room, gave better fitting men’s clothes, and a cup of tea. She was shaking and crying. While still in the Thomaskirche, she had heard a muffled shot, and then another one, just as she had entered the stairway to the underground passageway.

The janitor, who was grey and unshaven, hesitated, then said it must have been a backfire from a car – that that frequently happened in front of the Thomaskirche. He had heard it himself. She wanted to believe him. He wanted her to believe him.

In ten minutes, a small grey three-wheeled panel truck stopped behind the Matthias Church. Two figures got into the back. When Gestapo agent Christian Wegner reached the door from the underground passageway to the Matthias Church, it was locked. They were unable to break through it. When he arrived at the Matthias Church from the surface, that door, too, was locked. When the police eventually forced the door, there was no one there and no sign that anyone had been there.

Two weeks later, on a moonless night, off the Swedish coast, Anita Pilger climbed a long rope ladder, from a fishing boat, up onto a British destroyer, which had never come to a full stop. Two RAF pilots follow her up. Gestapo agent Christian Wegner had Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner’s body cremated. The ashes were poured into a trash bin. The bin was carried by truck to a landfill outside of Leipzig, and dumped. If you had stood there, where the garbage men had dumped the ashes of Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner, on the horizon, rising above the beech trees, you could have seen the Gothic tower of the Thomaskirche.

I sit in the Thomaskirche, or am I listening to my device? The music flows over me, through me, filling the low spots first, like an incoming tide. My head is slightly bowed. Christian Wegner raises his Luger. Assistant pastor Karl Bronner asks, “Are you a Protestant?”

Anita Pilger replies, “No, Catholic.” Karl Bronner says, “It doesn’t matter.” Gestapo agent Christian Wegner raises his Luger. The voices in the choir above and behind me sing the Agnus Dei. Lamb of God.