After an hour or so, José Antonio no longer notices the pistons huffing below the deck. Sitting upon a bale of blouses embroidered at the cuffs and the bibs with tribal talismans, he observes the roiling water the stern leaves in its wake. But lifting his eyes, he sees the churning ease, then calm just twenty yards back, as if the boat had never passed.
He has never felt the need of a watch, not in his entire life. But now, gliding over the brown river that thickens behind him before he’s even taken its next bend out of sight, the man asks a crewman what time it is.
“Ten minutes,” the sailor assures him impatiently, “since the last time you asked.”
“Ah, sorry. It goes slow on the water.”
“Not if you have work to do,” the man snaps as he lashes a tarp over the three bales of blouses and aprons and festival skirts carted from Xinutlan to Bejucal for shipment to the capital. They store textiles on deck; the dampness in the holds would mildew and stain the cloth long before they reached Puerto Túrbido.
José Antonio waits for the man to move on to other duties, then stretches out on top of the tarp and the three stacks of clothing it covers. Drowsing on the makeshift pallet, he learns his first lesson of what it means to have money: the rich often endure boredom.
He is confused by his feelings. Already today he has done more, seen more, said more than he has often managed in a whole week in Bejucal. Even as he considers what is happening, the surging of the boat rocks him to sleep.
The crack of a parrot’s caw tumbles him awake. He slips to his feet from the bales on which he has slept. The parrot, perched on a rail of the gunnel, squawks off to a tree overhanging the bank of the river. The branch bobs under its weight.
José Antonio is hungry. He doesn’t know how long he has been asleep, but it is still morning. A dream nags at him until it fades like something big just beneath the surface of water, a pirarucu maybe, going deeper. He peels a banana.
It goes on like this, the sleeping, the eating, the jungle and its river closing behind them, until José Antonio would believe they have been traveling a week, a month, whatever he was told.
Over the next days, the boat fills its holds, and the deck grows impassable with bales of textiles, cages of croaking macaws, tin vats of tortoises clambering over one another, tubs of something that looks like human fingers floating in vinegar. The nooks where one might doze away the afternoon under a canvas awning are filled with loose cargo. But José Antonio hardly notices. He paces the bow, cramped as it is, like the caged ocelot or the little peccary leashed to a cleat.
He grows impatient to arrive and fulfill the vow he has repeated as a prayer for nearly as long as he can remember. But always nagging him through the ten thousand nights—no, more—he knelt before the Virgin was how to carry out his promise to avenge his mother, how with his father fled and no means to follow? How, without help, could he track the murderer across that wilderness of years? How could he hunt a beast that had hidden itself in a thicket of time, whose black hair had turned to ash, whose handsome face sagged under a mask of wrinkled age, whose fierce eyes had dulled to tarnished coins? But it is all unfolding now, the path he could not see, like the brown river snaking silently through the impenetrable jungle all the way to Puerto Túrbido.
José Antonio will not be lulled again, not by the thrum of engines beneath his feet, not by the lassitude of a damp breeze, not by the sway of a loose-rigged boom. The lethargy of the jungle—the plodding gait of the ai slung along the underside of a dripping branch, the tapir’s shamble through giant cane grass, the slumber of the anaconda—yields to the wariness of prey, the watchfulness of predator. He is alert, straining to see beyond the next bend.
Eventually, the next bend reveals a stand of huts, tottering on stilts sunk in the muddy wastes of the lapping river. Then, farther on, children peer from tin sheds in a clearing.
The jungle thins. Trees shrink to bush. Bush droops to brush. Brush crumbles to burned plains. Fires smolder across the horizon.
People emerge from the smoke. At first, one or two straggle out of shadow. Then the shadow thickens into a knot of human figures. Suddenly the whole plain is writhing with creatures, moving in aimless circles and dark with soot.
On both sides of the river, the mud banks are stamped with footprints, littered with refuse. The boat glides on.
Mud hardens into rude walls, rises into raw houses. Incinerators, like huge tree trunks, spire beneath the dense foliage of their yellow smoke. Foam bubbles halfway across the river wherever a factory squats on the bank. Rusted warehouses, barges lining their wharves, fill the spaces between.
The captain slows his vessel as it approaches a complex of whitewashed buildings and docks. Signaling with one long shrill of his whistle followed by one short blast, he waits for an echo from the harbormaster, then comes about and eases his boat against the wharf of a two-story shed.
Longshoremen are already on board, hefting cargo on their shoulders, before José Antonio can bid the captain farewell and make his way down the gangplank.
He follows the wharf along the river past warehouse after warehouse until it swings into the harbor itself. Jutting from the murky orange sunset behind them, the cathedral’s three steeples, flanked by the cupola of the old colonial garrison and the little dome of the city hall, tower over the masts and the smokestacks of ships at anchor.
For the first time since his journey began back in Bejucal days and days ago, he is afraid. The welter of people, the clanging of sounds, the labyrinth of buildings—he stands confused in the church’s vast plaza and doubts himself. Seeking refuge through the small wooden entrance set into one of the enormous carved doors of the cathedral, the man kneels before the statue of the Blessed Mother crushing the serpent Satan under her heel. Banks of candles flicker at her feet. José Antonio prays for guidance and, lifting his eyes, recognizes the snake: it is a bushmaster. The knowledge calms him; he realizes, whatever Puerto Túrbido may look like, he is still in the jungle.
The other great square of the city, the Plaza of the Peace of December the Third, is only a short walk from the widow’s house in which José Antonio has taken a room.
Awaking at dawn, the man sits upon his bed until eight, when Señora Machado serves breakfast to her boarders. She is young to have lost a husband, he thinks, peeling a mango the woman has offered him from a blue bowl.
As she has instructed, he follows the Boulevard of the Revolution the few blocks to the plaza, about which all the government offices assemble like ornate stools around a flowered carpet, or so it looks to him as he regards the squat buildings bordering the square.
The Office of the National Lottery is on the second floor of the National Bank. Though the façade of the bank is gilded, the man is disappointed to discover at the top of a rear staircase that a simple door with a milky pane is the threshold to his future. Entering, José Antonio is surprised to join others, Indians and country folk like himself, milling about a vestibule fenced off from the main office by a gated mahogany railing.
Two clerks, each at his own desk, argue quietly with the people who sit across from them. One man, his back to the crowd in the vestibule, pounds the desk. The clerk speaking to him lifts both hands as if offended and closes the ledger lying between them. The angry man hunches his shoulders; even at a distance, it is obvious he is apologizing and cajoling the clerk to reopen the book. The young clerk, with a disdainful snort, relents. José Antonio notices that, against the far wall beneath a large window, the chief clerk drinks from a delicate cup and watches his two subordinates.
The waiting area grows more crowded. An hour passes before José Antonio finally swings open the mahogany gate and stands before a desk. The clerk gestures for him to sit and asks for his ticket. When he reaches behind his neck and lowers his knife in its sheath onto the desk, he sees fear blanching the young man’s face. He doesn’t like the clerk, the way the fellow made another man beg just an hour ago. So he holds the sheath in one hand and slowly draws the blade with the other. The clerk’s frightened chatter is silenced abruptly when José Antonio pounds the lip of the sheath in his fist against the desktop. Raising the sheath, he reveals a crumpled blue ticket.
The nervous laugh as the pale hands of the clerk smooth the paper pleases José Antonio. He is getting his bearings in this stone jungle.
The clerk, comparing the ticket to his ledger, suddenly bends closer to the page. Excusing himself, he retreats to the desk of the chief clerk, where he waves the blue paper and whispers excitedly. He returns and tells José Antonio his superior will handle the case.
“Señor,” he exclaims as the man stands and begins to walk toward the back of the room, “you are forgetting your knife.”
José Antonio smiles and in one motion the knife disappears into its sheath and the sheath disappears over his head and down his back beneath his shirt.
The clerk scurries behind him, holding the ledger open to a particular page.
The old man shakes hands gravely. “Señor Lopez, God smiles on you.”
“And on you, señor.”
“Perhaps, my friend. You see, we have an unusual circumstance here. The ticket you presented to my assistant, it bears a winning number.”
José Antonio nods. “Your letter said so.”
“Ah, we send many such letters. But from the secondary drawing.”
“What secondary drawing?”
The old man smiles at his assistant. “It’s true, no one ever reads the regulations.”
“Regulations?” José Antonio repeats.
“On the back of the placards. They all have it. It’s required. But never mind that. We’re not talking about you, Señor Lopez. The secondary drawing, that’s for all those poor devils.” The chief clerk waves vaguely toward the crowded vestibule. “A hundred pesos, two hundred pesos, perhaps five hundred for the lucky ones. They come all this way, and for what? Enough to get back home—maybe.”
“That’s their fortune?”
“No, my friend, that’s their fate.”
José Antonio sighs. “And me, what’s my fate?”
“Why, a fortune,” the old man grins. Then glancing at the ledger, he corrects himself. “A small fortune.”
“We’ll have to calculate that. It’s a percentage of the third level. Minus the fees, of course.”
“Administrative fees. It’s all spelled out in the regulations.”
The assistant clerk computes the figures and presents his tally to the chief clerk, who examines the calculations before initialing them. Drawing a sheet of blue letterhead from a drawer, the old man copies the number, folds the page in half, and slides it across the desk to José Antonio.
Opening the blue sheet, he is surprised. Yes, it is more than he has ever had before, but he would not call it a fortune. He could buy a house with it, he guesses, a nice house, even here in the capital. If nothing changed, he could live a long time on it, for the rest of his life probably, in Bejucal. But the unimaginable riches promised on the placard in Doña Ananá’s cantina, they must have gone to someone else. Still, his prize is enough to do what he has come to do.
José Antonio nods and starts to slide the paper back across the desk, but the old man stops him. “You must sign it as a receipt. Diaz will take you downstairs to the bank for the money and the other paperwork.” The chief clerk stands and extends his hand. “I congratulate you, Señor Lopez.”
José Antonio nods again.
“Just one more thing,” the chief clerk confides as if to save the man from an embarrassment. “It is the custom for a lottery winner like you to tip poor civil servants like us for this good fortune.”
“Is that in the regulations, too?”
“Regulations?” The old man laughs. “Ah, very good, señor. I see we understand each other.” He motions to his assistant. “Don’t worry. Diaz will advise you when you get downstairs.”
Despite Diaz’s advice to leave the money in an account at the bank, José Antonio insists on taking his winnings with him in the woven bag from San Ignacio Falls, which he emptied of his clothing last night for this very purpose. He also ignores the young man’s outraged remonstrations when the lottery winner declines to share a single peso of his wealth with the clerks of the Office of the National Lottery.
The young widow, cleaning beans for dinner at the kitchen table, listens sympathetically to José Antonio’s story. He does not mention the lottery winnings he has hidden in his room upstairs behind the cornice of the heavy armoire, nor does he describe Elena’s murder. But the woman learns he was orphaned of his mother and abandoned by his father at the age of five, raised by a great-aunt, and left to fend for himself after her death. He tells Señora Machado that he has come to Puerto Túrbido to track down his father and make peace with the old man.
The widow’s melancholy sigh, José Antonio understands, is not for him but for her own young son, Enrique, whom she pets each time the child tugs at her skirt from under the table where he plays with a wooden rabbit.
“But how am I to find him?” her boarder asks as she dotes on the boy.
The child has distracted her from their conversation. “Who?”
“You need a detective, Señor Lopez. A professional. You must ask Dr. Hidalgo. He will know where to go. Tonight at dinner, ask him where.”
“It sounds as if you need a detective to find a detective.”
The woman’s laugh is soothing as water over stones.
Dr. Hidalgo, unfortunately, does not know any detectives, but one of his patients is a lawyer. The next morning, the lawyer recommends one of his clients, a former policeman recently released from prison. “A temper, yes, it’s true. But a more honest man you’ll never meet. In court, no excuses, no alibis. He stands up and tells the judge, ‘Sure I killed him. He was a pain in the ass.’ How do you like that? Right there in the courtroom. Luis Menendez, that’s the man for you. Honest as the day is long.”
By the time José Antonio returns to the widow’s house at sunset, Menendez has agreed to find Juan Lopez. He is touched that a grown son would seek a father who abandoned the family. Between his old friends on the force and his new friends from prison, he is confident that he can track down the old man. It may cost a bit—“Everybody has one hand out,” the former police officer complains, shaking his head—but he has no doubt he’ll turn up the missing father.
His landlady greets José Antonio at the door. “What’s this?” she wonders, pointing to the stuffed blue crocodile in his hand.
“For your little fellow,” he explains shyly.
“Come,” she smiles, taking his arm, “dinner is ready.”
As he lies in his bed after supper and Dr. Hidalgo’s stories about patients’ afflictions, he realizes it is finally in motion, the vengeance he has sworn. He throws off the covers, kneels on the worn rug, and repeats the vow he hasn’t uttered since his last night in Bejucal, praying before the picture of the Virgin while Maciza watched him from the bed.
Falling asleep, José Antonio rehearses the scene he has imagined night after night as far back as he can remember.
He knocks at the door. His father answers. He drives his knife into the man’s belly.
The one thing that changes, the one thing of which he remains uncertain, is what he should say as the blood pools beneath the figure dying at his feet. Should he declare, “I am the son of the woman you murdered”? Perhaps he should simply curse his father. Or should he say nothing, letting the old man die without explanation, without a word?
As always, he falls asleep without deciding.
When he next meets Menendez, the detective has no firm leads but remains optimistic. “It’s only a matter of enough time,” the former policeman assures José Antonio, “and enough money.” Menendez himself has scoured the last three years of records in the notarial archives but has found no reference to a Juan Lopez of the right age and with the correct birthplace. When his client prompts him, he admits it would go faster if he could hire assistants to examine the bills of sale, the tax assessments, the census records.
“By all means,” José Antonio agrees. “Hire whoever you need. The money doesn’t matter. The only thing I care about is finding my father.”
“I wish I had a son like you,” the detective sighs.
Each time Menendez consults with Juan Lopez’s son, the operation to find the old man grows. Now there are retired policemen in Guadajierno, in Santa Maria, even on the western islands who are working on the case. The lawyer was right; Menendez is an honest man, always ready with a receipt for each expense José Antonio reimburses. Once, the detective comments on the ready cash his client provides. “My inheritance,” the man explains. “My mother’s money.” Satisfied, Menendez does not bring up the subject again.
Señora Machado mentions the money, too, but indirectly, when she protests the many gifts her boarder has showered on young Enrique. She knows José Antonio does not work, and yet he does not seem a rich man.
“The money came too late in life to change me,” he stammers, looking down at his shuffling feet.
The widow thinks she has embarrassed him. “No, Señor Lopez, don’t apologize. The poor would not hate the rich if they were all like you.”
José Antonio takes long walks but never exhausts the stones of the city, which stretch, it sometimes seems, all the way to the horizon. Aware of the looks his rough clothes draw, he begins to dress like a townsman. One afternoon, alone in the house with Señora Machado—“Alma,” she insists—he asks the woman how to knot the tie he has bought to go with his new collared shirt and linen jacket. The woman has very small shoulders, he notices, as she fiddles with the cloth around his throat. He thinks of the brown, muscled back of Maciza, of her broad shoulders. The man touches the young widow’s pale face, and she presses her cheek against his hand.
From then on, they make love by daylight in his room after the other boarders have left for work and while the boy naps. Their discretion is useless, though. Neither can hide the tenderness for the other. Soon, the whole household accepts the arrangement. The Indian girl who helps with the cleaning never interrupts them when the door is closed. And as for the others, Dr. Hidalgo advises the aging roomers that it is physically unhealthy for a young woman, especially a young mother, to be—he chooses his word carefully here—alone. He approves of José Antonio not only for having taken his advice in the matter of the detective but also for listening attentively in the evenings to the stories about his practice.
One afternoon, Enrique runs into the parlor, where José Antonio reads the newspaper while Alma sips her tea. The child asks the name of a bird singing in the tree outside the window. When the man explains it is a canary, Enrique wonders, “But what is it singing about, Papá?” José Antonio glances at the child’s mother, who offers him a sad smile and nods her resignation to what she cannot change.
Now it has been six months since José Antonio first saw the steeples of the cathedral over the harbor. The reports have filtered in from all over the country, nearly fifty of them. A pickpocket in Aldora reports a Juan Lopez, a tobacconist, to Menendez, but this Lopez turns out to be an immigrant from Spain and ten years too young. Another Juan Lopez is located on the coast in a fishing village; the age is right, but his right hand has been twisted into a deformed claw since his birth in, it is eventually confirmed, the same village where he still works in the icehouse. The detective counsels further patience.
But Menendez mistakes his client for a man of the city. José Antonio has not been patient; he has been hunting his father as one hunts in the jungle. The man has seemed to the detective deferential, almost passive, perhaps even indifferent. Offered files to peruse, José Antonio thumbs through a few sheets, sighs, hands the folders back with a shrug. What the ex-policeman takes for boredom, though, is the stillness of a serpent as its cloven tongue tastes the scent in the breeze. Each morning José Antonio has sharpened his knife against the little whetstone he carries in his pocket. In the afternoon, with Alma still dozing amid the tangled sheets, he has eased the leather thong and sheath from the mahogany bedpost, slipped it over his head, and returned to the streets. Prowling until evening, he has sought his elusive quarry in strange neighborhoods, following unfamiliar streets to the slums on the outskirts of the city and beyond to the outlying shanties, tireless and keen as a jaguar trailing prey. And he has ended each day on his knees, promising the Virgin he will not fail.
By the end of the first year, Menendez has reported to José Antonio on two hundred leads. None pans out. So the detective casts a wider net. Now his agents (as he begins to call them when he seeks payment for their services from his client) send dossiers on a Joaquim Lopez in Plato Negro, a Juan Lopata in some mountain village ten kilometers from Titalpa, even an Englishman named John Loping, an engineer who is building a bridge in the Apulco Valley.
José Antonio still offers the same vow each night beside the bed in which he sleeps alone for the sake of propriety, but he begins to consider the possibility that his father never will be found. He himself has crisscrossed the city, pressing pesos into the palm of anyone who will listen to his story about the abandoned son seeking a lost parent. He has been blessed to God by hundreds of simple folk for his devotion to the old man. “If only my son . . .,” one after another has complained to him, almost never finishing the sentence. But even in a great city like Puerto Túrbido, the stone streets eventually powder into muddy lanes, and the muddy lanes finally dissipate into fields that fringe the jungle. After a year of his long prowls through the capital, people begin to recognize him. There is no one left to whom he can tell his story. Maybe, he allows himself to think, the old man is dead.
Though he will admit to no relief at the idea of laying his vengeance to rest, it does please him to think of opening a store with the money that remains, perhaps an ice-cream parlor—a year ago, he didn’t even know frozen custard existed, but now he grows cranky if he misses his scoop of chocolate after his siesta. And it pleases him to think of Alma as his wife, Enrique as his son, himself as the master of the house.
He makes up his mind to propose to his landlady, to adopt her child. He even begins to plan the wedding. The man has discharged his duty to his mother, he insists to himself. What more could he have done? He tells Menendez he has had enough, to cancel the search. But before he can offer the woman the ring he has purchased with his dwindling winnings, the detective visits one Sunday morning after Mass with the news that Juan Lopez, the father of José Antonio, has been located.
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