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.
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.
“All this time and he was right here under our nose,” the detective shrugs. “And you know, we had him in our files since the beginning and didn’t even realize it. Can you imagine? Report number eight. But the birthdate was entered in reverse. Not 1854 but 1845. That’s how we missed him.”
José Antonio remembers the file from the very first group. He even asked Menendez to take another look; it seemed a close match, number eight. But no, the detective had assured him at their next meeting, number eight could not be his father. And then there were so many others to look at, the ex-convict had explained. He had a lead on a fellow in the south who met the description almost perfectly. It would cost a bit more to check it out, he had admitted, but he felt certain this was the Juan Lopez they were seeking. When the fellow in the south turned out to be left-handed, Menendez had seemed even more disappointed than José Antonio.
“So how did you find your mistake?”
“Fate, Señor Lopez, divine intervention. I was boxing up the files after you told me to shut down the search, and the contents of number eight somehow slipped from my hand to the floor. There, next to each other on the tiles, were the copy of the subject’s birth certificate and the page of my notebook where I had recopied the date. Somehow, my eyes fell upon the discrepancy.”
José Antonio studies Menendez. “You’ve checked it all out?”
“You won’t believe this. Your father is in an apartment, not ten blocks from here. He goes by another name—Juan Sanchez he calls himself—but that’s just his mother’s name he uses. It’s there on the birth certificate, the maiden name.”
“The whole time he was right here? In this neighborhood?”
“I tell you, señor, the world is a handkerchief,” the detective sighs. “He was clever, though. It was simple to go from Juan Lopez y Sanchez to just Juan Sanchez. Nothing fancy, just a small thing, but now no one in this whole city knows who he really is. No one but you and me,” the detective smiles, permitting himself a professional’s pride in the job he has done. “I guess he must have been ashamed of abandoning his wife and child.”
As Menendez passes his client the file, he lays a final reckoning on top of the manila folder. “The last reimbursements,” he explains. Then he clears his throat. “And, of course, I’ve added the bonus you promised in the beginning for actually finding your father.”
José Antonio suddenly understands the detective’s scheme with the disgust of a man who, emerging from the waist-deep muck of a swamp, discovers a swollen leech battening on his thigh. Menendez has bled him dry. And he is absolutely certain the former policeman has known all along where the old man could be found.
“You’ll get what I owe you,” José Antonio promises, examining the bill, “when you take me to my father.”
The detective hesitates.
“Tonight at nine. Where shall we meet? The fountain at the great plaza?”
Menendez, unhappy but anxious not to jeopardize the last of the money, repeats, “Tonight at nine, at the fountain.”
“Yes, my friend, tonight,” José Antonio assures him, ushering the man out of the house.
When Alma and her boarders sit down to their Sunday dinner an hour later, José Antonio watches the woman laughing at a joke. He regrets that today is the Sabbath. Though the household will retire to their rooms for a siesta after the big meal, Alma will not slip into his bed while the others sleep this afternoon. She is ashamed to lie with him on a Sunday.
Alone in his room, having burned his father’s file in the little fireplace, José Antonio slowly draws his knife across the small whetstone, over and over again, as he loses himself in memories, some more recent than others.
Just before nine o’clock, the sheath of the knife invisible beneath his old shirt from Bejucal, Juan Lopez’s son follows a flowered path to the great fountain at the center of the Plaza of the Peace of December the Third. As he approaches, rain that has threatened all day begins to fall, chasing the young couples, followed by stern old aunts, from the stone benches of the plaza to the cafés beneath the porticoes of the buildings surrounding the square. The drops, clapping like tiny hands against the water in the vast stone pool, remind José Antonio of home. He puts on the straw hat that hangs from a cord round his neck.
Menendez is not late. “I almost didn’t recognize you, dressed like this. You look like one of those peones from the country.”
“It’s for my father. This is how he remembers me.”
The detective shrugs and leads his client down a quiet side street away from the plaza. The houses they pass have walls burnished with the brown clay of the earliest architecture of the capital. It is a kind of slum, this neighborhood people call the “old city.” The rain picks up.
Menendez turns his collar against the shower. “Tell me, señor, why was it so important, finding the old man?”
“I promised my mother,” José Antonio explains, “never to forget my father.”
“A good woman,” the detective nods. Then he points. “There, across the street.”
The two men hurry into the hallway of the shabby building. The front door is jammed open with a wooden shim.
“These people,” Menendez complains, shaking his head. “Too stupid to close a door even in the rain.” Then he realizes whom they are visiting. “I didn’t mean your father. I meant the old bitch, the one who lives down here.” He points to the door beside the mailboxes to their right.
José Antonio notes to himself that Menendez has been here before.
They climb the stairs to the second landing. The detective knocks roughly at a scarred door.
“Who’s there?” The voice is reedy. Even through the wood, José Antonio can hear the wheeze between each word.
“The police, Señor Sanchez.” Menendez winks at his client. “We’ve found something that belongs to you.”
“It’s unlocked,” the voice manages between wracking coughs.
“You’re about to meet your father,” the detective whispers, turning the knob.
The door swings open on the room, its walls shuddering with candlelight.
Juan Lopez lies in his bed. He is a small man, nothing like his son. The voice rattles before it speaks. “What have you got of mine?”
The body in the bed is wasted; the face, sunken. Consumption, José Antonio realizes, remembering the wretched death of a consumptive Dr. Hidalgo described one evening.
The old man wheezes, waiting for Menendez’s answer.
The detective puts a hand on his client’s shoulder. “Your son, Señor Lopez.”
Menendez pauses, like a boxer who has just landed an unexpected punch, but the old man does not flinch. “I don’t have a son,” Lopez growls between breaths.
“Papá? It’s me, Papá, José Antonio.”
José Antonio nods. “My mother sent me.”
“That whore—” But the word turns into a cough he can’t stop.
“Choke on your insult, you murderer.”
Lopez recovers his breath, little by little. “Water,” he begs. “For the love of Christ, a glass of water.”
Ignoring the trembling hand stretched out to him, José Antonio walks around to the other side of the bed, so Menendez fills a glass from the pitcher on the nightstand.
As his father laps it up, rattling breaths between sips, José Antonio leans over and barely utters, “You are going to die, Papá.”
A cough—no, a laugh—bursts from Lopez’s lips, spewing water over his covers. The old man peels the damp sheet from his chest. Stains of yellow sputum blotch the undershirt he wears. “Of course I’m going to die,” he manages between breaths. “And stop calling me ‘Papá.’ I’m not your father.”
“You are Juan Lopez, no? The husband of Elena Altierrez?”
“Oh, yes, all that. But not the father of José Antonio Lopez. He is a bastard, that boy.”
José Antonio wavers. “Then who is my father?”
The old man tries to shrug but starts coughing again. “Some Indian,” he chokes out, then calms himself with deep breaths. “Why do you think a man kills his wife? He looks at his boy and sees nothing of himself. And his woman, the bitch, she mocks him with it.” He laughs to himself. “Of course he takes a knife to her.”
“Gentlemen, please,” Menendez interrupts, “I can see you have things to discuss. I should go.” But the ex-convict stands there, waiting. José Antonio looks up from the bedridden old man. “There’s just the matter, señor, of the final reckoning . . .”
“Oh, yes, forgive me. I still owe you something, don’t I?”
The detective nods as his client comes around the bed.
José Antonio knows how things kill only in the jungle. No slow toxin drips from the fangs of a jungle snake; already the mouse is being digested before it is even swallowed. And the monkey, pricked by a dart, plummets dead from its branch to the damp leaves matted about the trunk of the tree. So when he draws the knife from behind his back and drives it, all in one motion, into the heart of the man who has cheated him of nearly all his lottery winnings, the fat body slumps across the bed without a moan of protest.
José Antonio turns back to his father.
“I can’t move,” Lopez coughs. The heavy corpse has pinned his withered legs to the mattress. Then, grasping the situation, he sneers, “Go ahead. Kill me, you son of a whore.”
But José Antonio takes his father’s skeletal hand and wraps it around the hilt of the knife still buried in Menendez’s chest. The old man struggles to extricate his bloody hand from beneath the body pressing against his own.
“They’ll come in the morning, won’t they, someone, the old lady downstairs, with your breakfast?” José Antonio explains as he wipes his hand on the blanket. “And what will you tell them, Señor Sanchez, about this former police officer murdered in your room with your own knife? It is yours, you know. It’s the knife I pulled from my mother’s belly.”
The old man is defiant. “I’ll tell them about you, you bastard.”
“You’ll tell them you are Juan Lopez, the murderer of Elena Altierrez? Killing a young mother—that’s even worse than this. Would you rather be executed for her murder? Either way, it’s justice, isn’t it?” José Antonio leans over and blows out the candle on the nightstand. “You think about it, Papá. You think about it all night until they come for you in the morning.”
“You can’t leave me like this,” the voice wheezes pitifully in the dark.
“Isn’t this how you left me?” the dark answers.
Sometimes in the jungle, surrounded by vegetation higher than the eyes, one nonetheless senses the path home. It requires no compass, no landmarks, only an ear to listen to what one already knows.
Monday at two o’clock, Alma climbs the stairs to José Antonio’s room, taps twice, and softly opens the door, expecting to find her lover awaiting her afternoon visit. Though he has missed breakfast before, out early on one of his walks, he has always come home for their siesta.
But on the bed, his city clothes are laid out like a corpse on its bier. Above the linen pants, within the linen coat, the collared shirt is drawn closed with the tie she once taught the man to knot. As she bends to touch the cloth, Alma sees the tie has been threaded through a diamond wedding ring and the shirt pocket is stuffed with hundred-peso notes bound by a letter she will stain with her tears.
Already the steamer on which José Antonio has booked passage inland is leaving behind the smoking plains on the outskirts of Puerto Túrbido. As he sits in the bow on the case of whiskey he has bought for the fiesta with the last of his winnings, it salves his heart to see the brown brush unwither into green jungle.