No 170 - 2002
Tom lay in the hammock in the ranch house and took in, at a slant, the view to the garden where a hummingbird was flickering over an orchid. On the wall facing him, a masked man, a Zapatista by all accounts, stared through a frame. Still it was good to be here, despite local politics. He took a slug of mescal, after the peyote, from a full bottle within reach on the hand-carved coffee table and began giggling and talking to himself. They were lucky to be here. It was a little paradise. Mary was kindling some logs in the huge fireplace with a few sticks of firewood. He looked appreciatively, between slugs, at her rather large rump in the striped Mexican trousers. It suited her here. It was less polluted than Mexico City, more austerely beautiful than Oaxaca. Even the name sounded good. ‘San Cristobal de las casas,’ he repeated, ‘up in the cloudforest.’ He swung a little in the hammock, making the beams creak almost like a scaffold. A skull-like face stared at him from the corner.
‘Day of the dead,’ he chortled, and dangled a bony wrist.
Mary looked at him with impatience. He was really knocking back the booze.
‘Stop taking that stuff,’ she said, ‘you know how it affects you . It’s mad stuff.’
‘That’s the juice that loosens me up.’
‘Oh yeah, and who’s got to put up with the craziness?’ He looked at her dolllike face. She was changing into a dwarf before his very eyes.
‘Day of the dead,’ he said. She remembered the arrangements in the church of chocolate and sugar skulls - a celebration of death. An Indian woman was decorating the altar with gladioli, the others had carried in procession. She had glared at them as they entered, as if they had surprised her in a secret ritual. This was supposed to be a happy event. It was good to be alive, but it sure was good to be dead.
He was flicking through Bruce Chatwin’s Patagonia. It was Sue’s taste, the owner of the ranch. She was into ethnic things and spiritual origins. That was her photograph against the wall. There were faces everywhere, eyes watching you. Mary sat down on the natural wool rug and put her palms up to the blaze. It was surprising how cool it grew here in the mountains in late afternoon, even in August. Tom was dozing off in the hammock now. It would be difficult to get him to bed, she reckoned, but then bed was a mattress on the floor with a few Indian blankets, hand-woven Mexican style with a piece of earth against the principle of perfection. He was chuckling between snores. Mary took down A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and settled back down to read in the firelight as it was rapidly getting dark.
She was disturbed by a rapping on the door. She could just make out a figure of a man standing behind the glass. Tom stirred and his eyes rolled open.
‘What do you want?’ he mumbled. The room was dark except for the embers of the fire. Mary had been dozing over her book. She struggled up and over to the door, unbolting the massive iron bolts and turning the big brass key. She inched it open.
‘Oh hi, where’s Sue?’ The stranger was tall with a black beard. Mary explained, briefly, how Sue had offered to rent them the ranch for three weeks while she returned to Philadelphia.
‘Do you guys have a camera?’ he asked, stepping inside. ‘There’s gonna be a wedding here, an Indian one, and these folks haven’t got a camera. Neither have I.’ He smirked.
‘You must borrow ours,’ said Tom, rallying, ‘How about some coffee Mary?’
‘Do you smoke?’ asked the stranger and taking a carrot from his back pocket began to fashion a small pipe with a penknife. ‘You can eat it if the cops come.’ He took out a tin and filled the carrot-pipe with grass.
‘I’ve been trying to give it up but the temptation’s too much here. Would you like some?’
Mary shook her head. She smoked dope occasionally but now was not a good time. In any case, someone had left a pan full outside the front door that morning with a note from Sue telling them to ‘enjoy’. Tom had been cooking it in omelettes. There was so much.
She took the old Instamatic out of her suitcase and handed it over, reluctantly, to Spencer - as he called himself. ‘That’s cool,’ he said, looking like an archetypal old hippie, twisting his love beads. Tom struggled up after sipping some black coffee but his eyes looked blood-shot.
‘Gotta keep in with the locals,’ said Spencer. ‘A friend of mine, an Italian count, who lives in a villa in the mountains is getting very paranoid around them. He reckons they stole some photos out of their album. God knows what they were going to do with them, some ritual or other.’
‘Black magic,’ said Tom melodramatically remembering the drumming last night from the mountains. ‘What’s happening?’
‘Well, they’re gonna have an uprising. We had a revolution here last January, didn’t you know?’ Mary confessed to knowing little about it, except for the rather sinister dolls in masks that the Indians were selling. She had actually bought one as a souvenir in the town the other day.
‘Did she leave you those logs? No wonder the forests are disappearing. I’ve only got great mildewed ones straight off the forest floor stacked behind the shed. It takes forever to dry them out. Usually we do without. I’ve a ranch here with horses and two great dogs. You should see them. My wife runs a textile factory in Guatamala.’ He stretched his sandalled feet out to the blaze. It occured to Mary that his ethics were selective and did not run to not exploiting the Indians. She eyed the fine embroidery on his linen shirt.
‘You must come over and have dinner with us. We have an excellent cook, if you like it hot.’ She looked at Tom but his face was the shade of guacamole after a few deep puffs on the carrot-pipe.
‘I must go. My son is waiting for me back home. I hope to catch you before you leave. I’ll drop the camera in the next time I come by.’
It was hours later when Tom began bumping around the room in the night. She heard him curse as he stubbed his toe on a large terracotta pot in the middle of the floor. As he stumbled into the bathroom, he cried out. She found him cowering in the corner.
‘The piranhas are eating my feet.’ He was in a hell of a state. There was a weird atmosphere here at night. Mary felt nervous about crossing the room in the dark. Tom lurched forward grabbing her shoulders.
‘There’s cholera here. We must leave immediately.’
‘I’m not going anywhere in the middle of the night.’
‘Look at your leg. You need a doctor. I’m going to fax for one.’ She knew that she was in for it now. It took so little to take him over the edge.
She looked at the damp curls at the back of his neck, like a baby’s.
‘It’s the dope you’ve been smoking, not to mention the peyote. You’re losing your sense of reality.’
‘I’ve got to get a doctor.’ He rushed over to the fax machine and started punching in numbers like one possessed.
‘Leave that alone. You’ll break it. We don’t need a doctor.’
‘But I’ll be dead before long. I need a doctor. So you do. Look at your leg. It’s swelling up. There are things crawling all over it.’
A crash and a fall of glass made her rush from the kitchen. He had smashed the window with the terracotta pot and was clawing his way out through the jagged edges.
‘Come on Mary. We’ll escape.’
‘You’re mad. Come back. You can’t go out like that in the middle of the night.’
But he was gone, God knows where.
Hours later he returned, stark naked. The sun was coming up. He was holding a passionflower.
‘It’s for you Mary. We’re getting married in the little white church on the mountain. I went inside. I tried to fax the Pope for a dispensation.’
‘Where are your clothes?’
‘I left them behind. I don’t need them anymore.’
‘You’ll catch your death. Come back in, I’ll light the fire.’ He sat quite passively watching her kindling the wood after scraping out the ashes.
‘Put this blanket round you.’
‘They wouldn’t let me join them.’
‘The Zapatistas. I asked them, I said ‘Can I join you?’ There were hundreds of them bivouacking. They’ve been moved in for the elections. When they ignored me, I told them to kill me. That’s when I took off my clothes. I wanted to be a sacrifice.’
‘My God Tom, you’re completely mad.’
‘Come to me.’ He had covered his head in the blanket and was moving towards her.
‘You know they hate cameras. call them ‘evil eyes’. That Spencer must be mad ‘Come here darling. If you don’t I’ll kill myself. I’m going to climb in the fire.’ They made love on the floor. He wrapped her tenderly in a patchwork quilt then wandered off to the fax machine.
‘It’s no good.’ He returned into the main room. His face now livid, pungent with sweat. He was full of manic energy.
‘Come on,’ he screamed, suddenly grabbing her. ‘We’ll have to head for the arroyo again. I’ve already crossed it. The farm dogs ran out. They could have savaged me but they licked my face. The farmer came out of his house wildly shaking his head. ‘Niente Signor’. He made a ‘cut-throat’ sign with his finger.’ Tom paused for breath, leaning on the side. ‘That water was filthy, full of sewage - and piranhas. We must get treatment. Look what they’ve done to me.’
‘But your feet look fine to me. I’ll wash them for you.’
‘No need, they’re eaten down to the bone. Can’t you see? Can’t you see?’
The sun shone through the jagged glass edges and she could smell roses from the garden. If only she could calm him down. She wanted to make some tea but the caddy was full of grass.
‘I’m going to kill you now unless you get a doctor,’ he said, putting his hand around her throat. She struggled free and screamed as she ran across the garden to the neighbouring ranch house. Once she had gone he began making up the fire.
‘Yes, an immolation, the Indian way.’ He felt that this was the only way out. He threw on more logs and waited for it to gain its maximum heat. There were demon tongues shooting across the walls. The drumming had started up again, or was it his heart? Sweat began to pour out of him as the fever started. Skulls surrounded him and forced him to step into the fireplace. He felt a searing pain and then he passed out. He woke to see Mary with a young woman and someone in a white coat. Was it God?
Some days later Mary visited him at the Red Cross hospital. Thank God the American student, their neighbour, had helped her, phoned a doctor. He had managed to talk Tom down, had given him an injection which had sent him to sleep almost immediately. She felt sorry as they loaded him into the ambulance. In all her years with Tom, she had never seen him in hospital. Yes, he had a temper like a Molotov cocktail but to threaten to murder her and then to behave so bizarrely. No, there must be something more. She had learned a few things about Sue while Tom was in hospital. A friend of hers came by from the museum, where he tended the gardens, and told her how she always supported the poor Indians, never turned them away. This was their territory.
Spencer had been positively shaking after he heard what had happened. ‘There are more and more of them moving in now.’ He kept repeating. He panicked the night she went to dinner. The Indian servants and their families were hanging around after-hours. He thought they were trying to move in, to drive him off his land. Or was it just paranoia. Persecuting the Indians was an old pastime. They wouldn’t get away with it again.
Tom told Mary, in one of his saner moments, how he became possessed, how he had to escape with her from the ranch, how finally he had this feeling of death, how he must self-immolate in order to allow his spirit to leave his earthly body. Mary read in one of Sue’s local history books how the area, now built-up with modern ranch houses, was once an Indian village. This was confirmed the night that Tom came back from the hospital. They smoked a little grass together to unwind. Tom began talking in tongues, screaming out that his feet hurt. The Conquistador who she saw tying him up, lit a firebrand at his feet, his poor feet. Only when she cried out and rushed to stop him did he disappear. It must have been powerful dope to make her hallucinate like that. Tom swore that Toquemada was torturing him. He commended Mary for bringing back the priest from the little white church, which he had visited in his madness. They both thanked him for exorcising the ranch house.
There had been an uprising in the village in the fifteenth-century, he told them. An Indian prince had been tortured by the Conquistadors - ‘All in the name of Christianity,’ he said wryly.
Tom improved gradually enough to return to the posada off the zocolo in San Cristobal where they had been so happy, prior to taking up Sue’s good offer of three weeks at the ranch.
Two days later they had to leave hurriedly by night bus as the second wave of the revolution was upon them. They had declined the offer to house sit for the Italian count while he took a long trip to Rome.
Susan Reynolds is a drama teacher and the prose editor of Kymera magazine. She has had stories published in The Frogmore Papers, Sol and the online magazine The Adam’s Residence, among others, and one performed at the Sudbury Theatre last year. She lives for part of the year in Paris, where she has read at Shakespeare & Co’s book shop. She is currently writing a novel, set in India.
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