It is raining when the letter arrives. But when is it not raining in Bejucal? When do the tin roofs of the settlement not clatter under the endlessly falling pebbles of water? When do the few windows not waver with the slithering trails of raindrops beading down glass? When is the brown face of the river not pocked like old Doña Ananá’s, who contracted smallpox when she was twelve during the one visit to her cousin in the capital?
Yes, the letter arrives in the rain. A barefoot man, his sandals slung around his neck, slops across the road from the ballast-board cabin of the Southern Crescent Trading Company with the damp blue envelope already curling in his hand. He pauses on the veranda of the cantina to slip on his shoes and remove his straw hat. Even though he is the company foreman, he has no choice; the implacable Doña Ananá would chase him back into the rain just like any other man who dared enter her café with a hat on his head or without shoes on his feet. “It is a respectable establishment, no?” he has heard her bellow at prostrate peones cowering beneath her raised machete. So, still dripping from every fold of his poncho, the foreman slicks back his hair.
The men of the town are all there, hunched over tables, sipping maté, waiting for the rain to break. They are in no hurry: what doesn’t get done today will get done tomorrow, or the next day maybe. At some tables, men sit saying nothing. They have grown up together, nearly all of them. They know everything about one another. And they have quit talking about the weather, years ago. So what is there to say?
The foreman, called Tavi by everyone who knows him, nods at Doña Ananá. She smirks. Even as a boy, he sensed the old woman didn’t care for him. He strides up to José Antonio Lopez, who straddles a stool at the bar, grasping an empty beer mug in both hands. The foreman sits down beside the man and, without speaking, slides the blue envelope blotched with raindrops in front of his old friend, to whom it is addressed. Tavi has passed the letter with the surreptitious gesture of a man paying for a crime another will commit for him. He has always had a taste for the dramatic. In another place, he might have been a notary or a salesman, but in Bejucal he is simply the guy who organizes the work crews for the company, the guy who gets his orders from the circuit manager every fifth week, the guy who delivers a letter that has floated three hundred miles up the river from the capital to this outpost in the jungle.
Doña Ananá is scowling at two Indians playing dominoes on the bench against the wall. Tavi catches the eye of the old woman. “Señora, a beer, and one for this man, too.”
When the foreman lays down a ten-peso note for the two warm drinks, she makes change from the pocket of her apron. “Big shot,” he hears her grumble. José Antonio’s left thumb conceals the return address on the blue envelope while the old woman snaps the coins, one by one, onto the bar in front of Tavi.
“So you going to open it?” Tavi almost whispers after she disappears through the stained curtain into the little kitchen.
“In a minute.” Now José Antonio is holding the letter in both hands, running his thumb back and forth across the embossed address of the Office of the National Lottery. Both men already know what it must say, the letter. The Office of the National Lottery does not waste a sheet of its official stationery, folded into one of its pale blue envelopes, to inform a citizen that after the annual drawing in the capital, his ticket still remained at the bottom of the great iron cage among the thousands of others unplucked by the archbishop.
They know this because for the past thirty-two years, ever since the two classmates were fifteen and each old enough to enter the lottery, they have failed to receive such a letter informing them with profound regret that they have lost yet again. They have come to understand, without saying so or even acknowledging it to themselves, that this is the lesson of the lottery: the inevitability of loss. Why waste paper on the confirmation of the obvious?
Nonetheless, the agent of the lottery arrives each autumn under the protection of the Southern Crescent circuit manager and his payroll guards. The little man sets up on a table in this very cantina the framed placard announcing the unimaginable prizes to be awarded the following spring. Then he unlocks the cash box and, like the last year and the year before and the year before that, once again enrolls each of the villagers in his ledger. Each name is inscribed beside an ornate number printed in the margin, a number matching the one stamped on the blue ticket the bespectacled gentleman offers as a receipt of the wager.
So José Antonio need not draw his knife from its sheath between his shoulder blades and splay open the seam of the envelope to know he has been invited to present his ticket at the Office of the National Lottery in Puerto Túrbido, where he may claim his prize.
“Come on, amigo, let’s see it,” pleads Tavi.
But slipping the envelope into a pocket, his friend is firm. “Later.” José Antonio nods toward the tarnished mirror behind the bar, which flickers with the reflections of dark figures crowding the room as they wait out the downpour.
Tavi sighs. “I’ll bring a bottle, yes?”
“Yeah, later . . .” The voice trails off into that trackless waste of memories and dreams where Tavi has often lost his friend.
The foreman finishes his drink and pats the other man on the shoulder. “God smiles on you,” he whispers. But he knows José Antonio doesn’t hear him.
The house, his since childhood, has fallen into disrepair these last few years. The roof leaks, of course. In the bedroom upstairs, scattered pots cluck with dripping water. It sounds as if something is beginning to boil, as if José Antonio is making tea for the whole village
At least, that is what he is thinking as he takes his siesta, half asleep in the bed he has dragged to the center of the floor, the one dry spot left in the room. The Virgin watches him from her framed portrait on the wall, her hands cupping a heart in flames, tears weeping from her eyes.
He has only to glance at the picture of Our Lady, he knows, and he will be back in the doorway, once again the five-year-old answering his mother’s screams in the middle of the night as his father, still cursing the woman, pushes past him and flees down the stairs. The Virgin was the last thing she saw, his mother, as the sheet dampened beneath her in this very bed. He remembers the blood oozing, just in front of his face, between the long fingers she pressed against the gash in her belly and how it pooled red, and then darker than red, in the hollow of her curled body.
Even after his great-aunt had scrubbed the blood from the coarse linen with lye on the bank of the river, working the sheet against the washing stone worn smooth by generations of Indian women, the stain’s brown shadow lingered as though scorched there by a hot iron. But the old woman, too frugal to discard a possession with use still left in it, slept on that soiled sheet in her niece’s deathbed for the next twelve years until the afternoon she herself died, delirious and cursing the priest.
In his memory, José Antonio cannot distinguish his mother’s face from the face framed on the wall. There was no photograph of her, Elena. As a boy he persuaded himself that maybe she did look like the Virgin, with pursed lips and blue eyes saddened for her son. When he told his great-aunt about it, though, she cackled. “Blue eyes?” the old woman scoffed. “One of us?” But then she softened. “The Mother of God is the only mother you have, niño, so yes, your mother has the face of the Virgin.”
From then on, the old woman had the child say his prayers each night on his knees before the portrait. Every year at Eastertide, she replaced the small palm branch wedged above the frame with a new frond blessed by the priest. The spine of green needles protected the houses of faithful Christians and all those who dwelled there, she believed, just as she believed every other superstition countenanced by the Church. In fact, the fury she unleashed upon the itinerant priest who administered her last rites had sprung from the failure of his holy water to shrink the tumor in her gut. At first she had dipped two fingers in the carved font just inside the door of the crude chapel before Mass each month and slipped them under her skirt to rub the swelling. But then near the end, when the pain had clawed her into a whimpering madwoman, José Antonio found his great-aunt lapping the water from the font like a scrawny monkey drinking rainwater cupped in the crook of a tree.
He had the old woman wound in the stained sheet on which she had died with knees clutched to her shriveled bosom against the agony of her last hour. The young man had thought to bury his mother’s ghost in his great-aunt’s grave, but when he came home after the funeral, he found it still there, the shadow of Elena’s death, blurred on the ticking of the mattress. He sees it still every time he strips the bed and stuffs the mattress with fresh husks, smoothing the clumps of sheaths with arms sunk all the way to the shoulders through the slits of the bedding. And there have been times when, kneeling beside the bed with his cheek on the brown stain of his mother’s blood, his fingers deep inside the mattress to find the hard core of withered chaff that disturbs his sleep night after night, José Antonio could have let himself weep like a child.
Thinking of his mother, he lowers himself to his knees before the image of the Virgin and repeats the prayer he has offered for more than thirty years, professing a vow that now—thanks to the lottery—can finally be honored, a vow to find and kill his father.
Then, making the sign of the cross, he pulls himself up along the wall and slides his hand behind the frame of the holy picture. Just beneath the barbs of the palm frond he has continued to replace each year since his great-aunt’s death, slipped into the groove of the frame that locks the mat against the picture, a delicate strip of paper rustles under his fingertips. Reassured, he smiles to himself as he riffles the slip of blue paper, stamped, he knows, with a string of maroon numerals and emblazoned with the ornate crest of the Office of the National Lottery.
The steamer that has delivered José Antonio’s letter will leave at first light tomorrow morning on the return voyage to Puerto Túrbido; Southern Crescent trades at no villages farther upriver. Already Tavi has gathered a crew to load the crates of rare orchids and the baskets of iridescent butterfly wings gathered by Indians along the slopes of an unnamed valley six hard days’ trek from Bejucal. Because it is the rainy season, the company warehouses are nearly empty. The lumber, black with water, is too heavy to cart back through the rutted mud of the logging roads, and the jungle crops can’t begin to be harvested until the rain breaks in another month or two. So this time of the year, the company sends the little boat, and it does not bother to stop for long at the small settlements on its way back to the capital.
José Antonio finds his friend on the landing, checking a bill of lading, and the two men walk together to Tavi’s office. Rain licks their faces with its hundred small tongues.
Inside the company cabin, Tavi bends before the safe that Southern Crescent has provided each of its outposts. The one at Bejucal is an antique; his father taught Tavi its sequence of numbers twenty-two years ago. Now without even repeating the code to himself as he spins the brass knob to first one number and then another, twirling it back and forth between his thumb and finger, the foreman opens the safe and counts out the wages owed since the last payday nearly three months ago. As José Antonio signs the ledger to document the transaction, Tavi realizes he will never see his old friend again. Why would a man return to this godforsaken place?
“Bring a case of whiskey when you come home,” he says as he locks the red ledger back in the safe.
“For a fiesta,” the voice behind him promises.
There is much to be done, and José Antonio is not used to being rushed. With his pay and if he sells his father’s gold watch still locked in the strongbox that is squirreled between two joists of the floorboards of his bedroom, the man will have enough for his journey to the capital—even with the debts he has to settle before he leaves the village. He owes Doña Ananá for a month of drinks at her cantina. There is the money for the ax he borrowed from Xavier and lost in a hole of the river when his canoe capsized last spring. And then he has to do something about Maciza.
He needs a mat to sleep on and a new hat, one with a band on the inside that keeps the straw from scratching the forehead. He has to wash his clothes and pack them in the woven bag an Indian traded him for a pocket mirror on the mudflats below San Ignacio Falls. He has to sharpen his knife, he reminds himself.
The day drizzles away. José Antonio dislikes being pursued by obligations yammering after him like pups snapping at his ankles. It is already dark before, finally finished with everything else, he sends a boy for Maciza.
A bottle forgotten beside his rocker from last night or the night before glistens in the lamplight with a finger or two of rum. José Antonio pours the dregs into two glasses and carries them upstairs to the woman who, already undressed, waits for him in his bed.
Maciza sniffs the drink when he hands it to her.
“Go on, it’s rum.”
“Why do we drink tonight?” She senses his unease.
“Tomorrow, I’m taking a trip.” He feels her eyes on him. “A long trip.”
He shrugs and swallows the black liquid. Then he loosens his clothes.
She lays her cheek against the mattress, her knees beneath her. Maciza will let herself be rolled onto her back, but it embarrasses her to be taken like a white woman, and her shame stifles the whimpers of pleasure he likes to hear her make. So he kneels behind her on the sagging bed, rolling his hands along the curve of her back until he seizes her shoulders and holds her fast.
Afterward, he tells her to live in the house until he comes back.
“Come back?” she laughs. “Why would anyone come back?”
“You never know,” he whispers in the dark. “Maybe I’ll miss you.”
“Oh, hombre,” she purrs, pleased.
“And if I don’t come back, you keep the house.”
The woman, her back still to the man, is both touched and hurt by the promise of his gift to her.
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