NOTE ON THE DANCING GODS
The Dancing Gods is a story or short novel I wrote mostly for fun at the time of Chavez’s first attempted coup d’état. Whether it has any connection to the politics of what has happened since in Venezuela, I leave to readers to decide. The spiritualist scenes are based on a real cult in this country, though I’ve imagined a lot there too. María Lionza is a force in the lives of many people.
It’ll soon be dawn. It’s going to be a historic day, and though there’s no need to make a fuss about it, one must admit there’s a certain satisfaction in the idea of the light coming up on impending chaos. A lot of orderly work and discipline and sacrifice – even blood sacrifice – have gone into preparing this outbreak of disorder. A nice paradox. Of course there have been accidents too. So, imagine – a thin band of metallic light on the horizon of the inert sea, growing wider till it touches a rocky shore, grey sand, waves breaking lazily – and beyond, the whole country stretching inland, unaware of the message the light is bringing. Caracas, the great capital, shacks piled over some hillsides and over others terraced villas – it’s hard to tell which look flimsier in the daybreak – but here unawareness is not total. Some people know and are waking up to the knowledge – if they slept. The plains then – endless spaces waiting for their old destiny as battle-grounds to be revived. Are the dust and mud and the flocks of birds throbbing in sympathy with the promise of a violent awakening? And the mountains, of course, the mountains. The challenging Andes. The light will come down on them today like claws. It will rend reason and bring uneasiness and fear and, to some, exultation. No one will be unaffected. Of course very few will understand what’s going on, but it’s always so. Few understand and fewer still can control what happens or create happenings. Look, the light is swelling. Its consistency, its tones, are not the same as on other days. People will see that even if they don’t know what they’re seeing. The light trembles as it brings the time closer.
I didn’t scream when I saw the hand, but now, when I remember that moment, the sight of the bloodless fingers brings with it the sound of a howl that echoes on and on, shaken intermittently by a sob, into an endless darkness outside time. I no longer remember often.
The ordeal began on the day of the Autumn equinox. I had got up at five in the morning to reach Shouting Hill in good time for the rite. It was a holiday – not because everyone would be celebrating the sun season; the President had decreed a long weekend for his own birthday – so at that hour there was almost no traffic, and I was high above the city on the winding road before the sky began to lighten.
After all the years I’ve lived here, the view of the Mucutay valley from above still moves me, and I pulled off the road for a moment to look at it. From where I stood I could see the whole valley, from the gap in the mountains to the north where the main road and river enter it to where it falls away among the barren, eroded hills to the south. A slice of moon was hanging above the mountains to the east, its horn tips pronounced and surprisingly threatening. The slopes and floors of the green lateral valleys emptying toward the town were still deeply shadowed, and the sprawling town itself looked trapped under its web of electric light. Some of the taller buildings were recognizable in the faint daylight, grey like the stony tops of the mountains behind me. The place looked sour and inhospitable. The cliffs edging the plateau on which the town stands were starting to show their outlines, and I shook off my unexpected revulsion and drove on.
There were cars already at the parking place. My jeep can go further, up the track that branches off there, and I went on till I came to the edge of the patch of forest. Under the trees it was still dark, and I felt nervous walking up the narrow track among twisted trunks and Spanish moss hanging low from branches loaded with parasites. I wondered what was wrong with me. I’m not usually afraid of the dark, and I could think of no reason why I should feel threatened.
Then I came out on to the bare hilltop and my fear lifted. The range of mountains across the next valley was silhouetted from behind by the dawn, and faint rays were feeling their way through the thin morning mist and gilding the sky. The rough-hewn stone features of the statue of the Goddess at the edge of the trees were lightening into a smile.
“Viva el sol!” I shouted to the group of people on the hilltop.
They turned to greet me, and my friend Rosario waved and smiled. Silvano, I saw at a glance, was not there.
Preparations had already been made for the rite; mirrors had been set out on the stones of the solar circle, and the largest stone at the edge of the hill made into an altar with flowers and a statue of the goddess.
I went to stand near the altar, where I could casually look back and see who arrived. A fat, dyed blonde woman I had hardly ever spoken to, but whose name, I knew, was Luisa, came to stand beside me and said in a forced whisper, “You’re looking for Silvano, aren’t you?”
“I’m expecting him, yes,” I answered, as indifferently as I could, because I was startled and the sense of threat was creeping back. “He must be coming with Bald Master. They’ll be here soon.”
“He won’t be coming,” she muttered harshly. “If he knows what’s good for him he’ll be far away from here.”
The shock made me stare at her; there was a triumphant sneer on her chubby, painted face as she turned away.
The light was growing rapidly and people kept arriving, alone or in small groups, shouting their greetings. By the time the sun’s halo rose over the ridge many people were muttering with worry at the absence of Bald Master; he usually led the rite. Liliana, who was wearing a long yellow dress, stepped into the centre of the circle to take his place. And then Bald Master arrived, pale and sweating and almost staggering from the effort, although he was leaning on sturdy Julio.
He joined Liliana in the circle and all of us gathered round. The glow behind the mountains was a fire now. “He’s coming! He’s coming!” several voices shouted, and then there was silence as the rim of the sun broke out. Bald Master began to intone the ancient prayer, with Liliana echoing him in her clearer voice, as all of us raised our arms, slowly, slowly, accompanying the blazing disk up into the freedom of the sky. When it was away and sailing, and the mirrors were winking and sparkling, we let go our tension in long shouts from deep down in our chests; they came back to us in echoes from the rocky peaks on either side, magnified, till it seemed the mountains and the valleys and the air itself were shouting.
As always, I felt buoyed by the rite, and was able to reason about Luisa’s attack. I couldn’t imagine why she should resent me, and hate Silvano as well, but she must think she had a reason, and she seemed to be a woman who would enjoy causing hurt. Silvano’s absence was strange, but not out of character.
People had started chattering, taking food out of bags and baskets to spread on the grass and pass around. I got out the muffins I’d made and put them in circulation too. Julio beckoned to me, patted the ground beside him and handed me a cup of coffee from a thermos as I sat down. Bald Master, sinking to the ground nearby, smiled at me but didn’t seem to want to talk. Julio said that he himself almost hadn’t come because of a hangover.
“But it was just as well I was there,” he said. “When Silvano didn’t turn up Bald Master had to wake me and wait till I found a jeep. That’s why he was so late.”
“Silvano said he’d fetch him?”
“Yes. I thought he meant they’d be coming with you.”
Before I could deny it, Rosario joined us with a plate of pastelitos and asked “Why didn’t Silvano come?”
“I don’t know,” said Julio. “Do you Helena?”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“Oh!” said Rosario. “So you don’t know what Silvano’s up to?”
“Come on, I’ve never tried to keep track of his movements. He’d hate it.” I meant this to sound casual, but it didn’t.
“But everything’s all right between you, isn’t it?” Rosario insisted.
“I don’t know,” I said, though I didn’t like admitting it. “He might be drifting away.”
“He can’t be,” she said indignantly. “You’re perfect together. Everyone thinks of you as a couple.”
Her naive seriousness made me smile, and Julio said, “That’s right. Silvano adores you. Something must have happened to stop him coming, you’ll see.”
“I wonder what,” I said, noticing Luisa’s sneer turned toward me again from the other side of the circle. “Luisa told me he’d have to stay away for his own good.”
Julio and Rosario stared at me and Bald Master turned his head toward us too, though he still didn’t speak.
“So that’s what she was telling you before,” said Rosario.
“Yes. I’ve never had anything to do with the woman. I didn’t even know Silvano knew her.”
“She goes to the temple,” said Julio. “But Silvano doesn’t like her. She’s just envious. Now let’s stop being so serious. Have another pastelito before I finish them.”
I decided to believe Julio and succeeded in putting worry aside while we finished the meal and danced, the slow dance winding in and out of the stones of the solar circle, symbolically plaiting the strands of light to form the rays by which each person reaches the centre. The sculpted goddess watched us calmly, approving our celebration of her oldest child and lover.
By midday I was down in town again, and now the traffic was bad. The queues started while I was still on a side road, and when I finally turned into one of the main avenues it was jammed with cars in both directions. I tried to hold before my mind the image of the rising sun and forget the passage of time while the lines crawled forward yard by yard, but I couldn’t concentrate. The town felt mean and menacing, as I had seen it at dawn. I began to observe the people in other cars. Some were just impatient, some were festive, laughing and shouting, drinking beer from cans and swaying in time to the loud music from their cassette-players, but others looked solemn and worried and gazed round as if they felt trapped. Then I saw a group in the opposite lane switch from glee to seriousness in an instant; they all leaned toward their radio and stared at each other.
I don’t have a radio in the jeep, so I couldn’t tune in to find out what was going on. Just then I heard sirens. An ambulance trying to force a way down the other side of the road succeeded only in stopping the flow of traffic completely; and the same thing happened further up on my side as a row of police cars pushed their way in from a gateway.
Controlling my nerves, I got out of the jeep and went to ask the people listening to the radio what they had heard to shock them. A coup d’état they said. The president had vanished, there was fighting in the streets of the capital and nobody knew who was in charge. I went back to the jeep; people were glaring at me as if I was holding them up, but the queue hadn’t moved an inch. A terrible racket of horns was starting.
The next few hours were a limbo. Thoughts of Luisa’s unkind words and Silvano’s absence sometimes came, but the general nervousness and the heat and feeling trapped in the traffic were distraction enough and I didn’t dwell on them. Nor much on the bewildering news of the coup; it hardly seemed real. By the time I crossed the bridge leading to the city market it was late in the afternoon. The market was open, and I stopped there for a respite. Everyone had heard about the coup by then, and the people at the stalls had got over the first shock and were excited as well as anxious, asking each other what would happen next. An army officer had appeared on television telling the nation that everything was under control, but no one believed it. Anything could happen still.
I thought I may as well lay in provisions in case the crisis was going to last, and I bought a lot of grains, cheeses, fruit and vegetables. I had coffee and an arepa. By then it was past closing time, but the market was still crowded. Others who could reach it had come to stock up too and no one seemed to want to move out of the relative calm in the building or leave behind the safe sight of heaps of food that might not be there next day. I dawdled a little longer, watching the colourful bustle, and finally decided to stop putting off going home. As I walked out to the parking area I had a distinct sense of leaving normality behind and setting out into an area of uncertainty and confusion. The traffic was no longer so heavy and I soon reached the residential area where I live. Day was beginning to fade as I drove up to the house.
One of the sitting-room windows was broken. Kids playing ball, I thought; there’s only a narrow strip of garden between the street and the front of the house. I unlocked the door and went in. At a first glance round the hall and sitting-room everything else seemed normal. I unloaded the jeep and put all my shopping away in freezers and kitchen cupboards. I wondered if Silvano would be there to eat any of that food with me. Not only because of his absence that morning; he’d been away from me too much lately. For a moment I missed him acutely.
When I’d finished with the stores I went back into the sitting-room. That was when I saw a smallish parcel on the carpet by the sofa. It was of the same dun colour as the carpet and lay partly hidden by the sofa skirt. It was dirty and untidily wrapped and was tied with blue nylon string. I stood there looking at it for a few moments. The hole in the window was staring at me; it was big enough for an arm to reach inside and throw the parcel.
I bent down and picked it up. It felt nasty, clammy on the outside and hard inside. The part I had gripped was solid; I ran my fingers over the rest of it and the solid thing divided into smaller segments. At that moment I already knew. I sat down on the sofa and made myself quietly untie the string, unwrap the dirty paper and spread it out flat on my knees to reveal Silvano’s hand.
I would have known it was his hand even without the ring I’d given him. The garnet in the eye of the silver snake looked back at me now more alive than the flesh it enclosed. But the shape of the hand, the long, beautiful fingers and the surprisingly wide, strong palm, were unmistakable. The warm bronze colour had faded in the purpling pallor of death, the dancer’s fingers were rigid, but the hand had not entirely lost its individual grace.
First I felt I was going to explode; then the pressure in me subsided and I just sat there staring at the hand until it became too dark in the room to see at all. My thoughts were jammed. Finally a noise in the garden at the back of the house made me get up (laying the hand and its wrapper carefully on the sofa) to see what was there, but it was only a bird in the orange tree. The veranda doors and the fence around the garden were intact.
Back in the house I turned the light on and as I stood dazzled the questions started to come. Where is the rest of his body? Who killed him? I was sure he was dead – that hand been cut off a dead body. Why should anyone kill him? Why? Why should they send the hand to me? What do they expect me to do?
What can I do?
The immediate answer to that was nothing. I don’t trust the police at the best of times, and with a coup to deal with they were not going to be bothered with a severed hand. They would probably arrest me as the first suspect. The person I would have liked to talk to was Bald Master and he was not on the phone. Besides – I picked up the receiver to see – the line was dead. Anything could be happening outside in the streets, and in any case I didn’t have the strength to drive. I had no idea otherwise where to begin a search for a body or for explanations. None at all.
I went back to the hand. As I sat down the sofa cushions sank and it moved slightly as if it was alive. Then the reality pierced me and I wept. I wept for Silvano, my incarnated god of love. I wept for his freedom and grace. For his dancing as if the sky was his stage and movement the language of creation. For his wiry hair and his cat’s eyes and the rippling muscles of his back and his long, straight legs. For his dark cock and the sweet smell of his semen and his warm young flesh. For the child in him. For my own longing for him and his careless devotion to me. And all the time the picture of him in my mind was threatened with mutilation, lost its hand, airily regained its perfection and was amputated over again.
I wept till I was so exhausted that all images were wiped out. I sat for a long time completely numb. Then the questions surfaced again but I couldn’t deal with them. I forced myself to stand up. I took the hand (it felt like poor quality plastic) and put it at the feet of my statue of the dark dancer, the god of transformations. I lit a candle beside it and went upstairs to my bed.
It has not always been like this. We did not always have to be so tough, and find joy in terrible places. We could be soft, even feeble, and it was all right. It was even expected of us. When I’m unhappy and threatening to feel sorry for myself, I think of Grandma. She was looked after – her interests were looked after, and her feelings were carefully guarded and coddled. What would hurt Grandma was wrong. The evils of her world could be summed up in the word “disappointment”, which evoked the picture of a child’s face puckering with distress, with a quivering mouth and big tears on its cheeks. The good things could be represented by a heart’s-ease pansy, simple and deep and beautiful, like a scrap of motley sky close to the ground. You should try to keep close to the pansy always, and if you succeeded the bad things wouldn’t touch you. But there are no pansies in winter…
I sank out of this disjointed reverie into tense sleep, and some time later I came back to quasi-consciousness with very different images in my mind.
There are two figures spinning in the sky, very far up. They’re so small I can’t make out what they are, buzzards perhaps, or even planes; but suddenly they’re much closer, and they turn out to be dancers with their arms extended, treading air as if it were a stage. One of them is the golden dancer, and his face is ecstatic and loving, and he holds out his arms as if offering an embrace. The other is the dark dancer, and his expression is fierce and his feet trample and his hands wield weapons of destruction. Both are beautiful and dance with self-absorbed grace and fathomless energy and I watch them, looking from one to the other, until they merge and there’s only one dancer in the sky, and it’s Silvano, naked, and I’m suddenly afraid he’s going to fall…
I woke up then, horrified, and remembered Silvano’s mutilated body was lying in some place where I couldn’t reach it, and someone might be cutting other pieces off it, and the realization was so unbearable that I think I fainted. Then I must have slept again.
Well, it’s begun. The innocent young heroes have risen up against corruption and stagnation. Bloody fools! Of course rebellion is all very well in its way. It clears the stage. But what ignorance, what carelessness for consequence, what lack of depth! A movement to lead the country into the future must rise up like an immense solidifying shadow from the depths of its past. With earth, this earth, still clinging to its roots (never mind the mixed metaphors) and the ancient gods glowing intermittently in the shelter of its cloak. It must be darker than all the little meannesses of the idiots that have thought they were governing us, wider than the web of foreign pressures that want to define us as a place in the world market. It will be a scourge and an inspiration and a refuge. And its leaders will be men, or one man – not these boys. One might almost feel sorry for them, knowing they’re puppets. But really they’re asking for it, with their keen and selfless dedication, their messy democratic ideals, their poignant, handsome faces that will make them such attractive victims. At least they’re a team worth watching. Let the game go on!
I woke fully at five in the morning, determined to act. It had been decided by my sleeping mind that I was going to find Silvano, whatever the cost. I wrapped the terrible dead hand in its parcel again to take with me to Bald Master’s house, and set out in the jeep.
Bald Master was a ‘guru’ who had arrived in Mucutay some years earlier, no one knew where from. He had cancer and, though he had given up chemotherapy, all his hair had fallen out and not grown back and his features were swollen, so that it was difficult to tell what race he belonged to. Most of the time he spoke with an unidentifiable foreign accent. His followers said he was Tibetan and he didn’t contradict them. His teachings had taken beliefs from Tibetan Buddhism, but he was more like a priest of María Leona. The more intellectual end of the cult, where he was free to teach what he liked.
I had great respect for him. Bald Master might have his reasons for disguising his identity, but he was a perceptive and kindly man, and his spirit was tough and clear. I relied on his understanding; he knew better than anyone how torn I’d been at times by my love for Silvano. But I was his friend, not his follower.
I was not anyone’s follower. I belonged – and belong – to the group that celebrates the sun seasons, because since I was a child I’ve felt that the sun is a god. I had my own relationship to the goddess (based largely on suspension of disbelief) and at that time went rarely to the temple of María Leona. Silvano was active in her cult at the temple, but he didn’t encourage me to join him there. I had often noticed that Bald Master didn’t find the company of his own followers very interesting, but enjoyed spending time with the less austere Leonites, especially Silvano and Julio.
Thinking of Bald Master made me feel slightly less hopeless. The roads were mostly clear of cars, though there were a lot of burnt tyres, strewn rubbish bags, broken glass and big stones scattered all along my route. There had apparently been an uprising in the night while I was in my trance of horror and grief. The calm now was strange and a bit ominous, but no one tried to stop me. I drove right up to the door of Bald Master’s house, which was on the ground floor in an alley in one of the older and quieter barrios, and parked on the sidewalk. The house was dark, but the door, as usual, opened when I pushed it. I stood there in the dark, holding the wrapped hand, reluctant, in spite of the emergency, to wake Bald Master.
“I’m not sleeping,” his hoarse voice said from the back of the room, and he struck a match.
He was a grotesque sight, sitting cross-legged on his futon in only pyjama trousers, puffy and grey in the light of the candle he lit.
“I knew it was you,” he said. “What have you got there?”
Without speaking I sat down beside him and handed him the parcel. He unwrapped it, studied it quietly for a moment and laid it on the mattress beside him. He put his arm round my shoulders and said, “So that’s it. Poor Silvano. How are you dealing with it?”
“How can I?” I asked. I was trembling hard and fighting back tears.
“Come,” he said. “We’ll make some tea.”
I helped him to stand up and he leant on me as we went through into his tiny kitchen, where he turned on the light and put water on to boil with an expression of intense concern.
“Why were you expecting me?” I asked.
“Silvano has not failed me before. I knew something must have happened. I did not expect anything so terrible.”
“Have you any idea what?”
“No. How did you find the hand?”
“Someone threw it through my sitting-room window. While I was at the Hill.”
“That’s not fair,” said Bald Master. “Come.”
He put a mug of hot water with a teabag into my hand and led the way into the meditation room which took up the rest of his small flat. He sat down on a cushion in front of his altar, where Green Tara and María Leona reigned side by side, and closed his eyes. I fetched the candle from the front room, sat down beside him and drank the tea. The warmth relaxed my nerves and I began to feel stronger again.
When Bald Master opened his eyes he said, “You are going to find out what happened to him.” It was only marginally a question.
“Yes, I am,” I said. “I could never have any peace again if I didn’t.”
“It will be dangerous.”
At that point I heard footsteps, and Julio, who lived opposite, came quickly into the room.
“I saw your jeep,” he said as we stared at him. “I got up to check the situation on the TV. Has something happened?”
I stood up and said “Silvano is dead.”
“That can’t be!” he exclaimed, going pale. Julio was Silvano’s best friend. But he looked hard at me and at Bald Master and saw it was so.
Julio’s fists clenched and he doubled over, but he recovered himself quickly and hugged me.
“How did he die?” he asked. “Where is he?”
“We don’t know,” I answered. “Someone left his hand at my house.”
“Then he could still be alive somewhere!”
“I don’t think so. You can see it was cut off a dead body.”
Julio looked at Bald Master, who nodded. “It certainly looks like it.”
Julio sank dejectedly to the floor. “Who would do that to him?”
“We don’t know,” I said again. “But I’m going to find out.”
“You’d better let me do that,” said Julio. “It may be a thorny job.”
“We’ll do it together,” I said. “I’m not afraid of what we’ll find. The worst has happened already.”
They both stared at me, and Julio said “OK. Poor Silvano! Where do you want to start?”
“Right here,” I said. “When did you see him last?”
“On Tuesday,” said Julio, after thinking for moment. “We were here for a while in the evening with Bald Master.”
“Was he strange in any way? Did he seem worried about anything?”
“He’s been nervous lately,” said Julio. “He was running around too much. And he was in trouble with the dance company for missing rehearsals.”
“He was strange,” said Bald Master. “He tried not to show it, but something was making him nervous and that’s not like him. Didn’t he go to your house when he left here?”
“No,” I said. “Did he say he was going to?”
“Yes,” they both answered, and we stared at each other.
“When did you last see him?” asked Julio.
“Last Sunday,” I said, and went on quickly, before they could observe that it was too long. “So it could have been that night they got him and stopped him coming to me. Or he could have been using me as an alibi.”
“An alibi for what?” said Julio.
“For whatever he was doing that we didn’t know about. You didn’t know either, it seems.”
“It’s true,” said Julio. “He wasn’t spending so much time with me lately.”
“Nor with me,” I said. “So where was he?”
“He’s been with the Leonites a lot. Not at the temple because they were missing him there too. But he went several times to the Mountain. Maybe he got involved in something there.”
“A lot of people will be at the Mountain this weekend, won’t they?”
“Yes, for the holiday.”
“Then I’m going there. At least it’s somewhere to start.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Julio. “If we can go anywhere with the coup.”
Daylight was beginning to filter into the little yard beyond the windows of the room, and I could see the shapes of carefully tended ferns in their pots. For a moment I wished I could give up the chase before it began and just stay in that quiet room, in detached contemplation; but at the same time I knew there was no such possibility. This was a chunk of reality I had to go through. I looked at Bald Master and saw that he knew exactly what I was thinking. His eyes were smiling.
I almost smiled back. “Then let’s go,” I said.
We went through into the front room. I looked for the hand on the futon where Bald Master had left it and it was gone.
“It’s not there,” I shouted.
“What’s not there?” asked Julio.
“Silvano’s hand. I brought it to show Bald Master. We left it here on the futon, with the paper it was wrapped in.”
“Then someone has taken it.”
“They must have. You didn’t notice something lying there when you came in?”
“It was dark,” said Julio
“But that means someone round here knows about Silvano and is watching us.”
“It looks like it.”
“So should we stay here?” I asked.
“You may learn more at the Mountain”, said Bald Master. “Don’t waste time. I will make enquiries here.”
“You might be in danger,” I said.
Bald Master shrugged.
“We’ll come back quickly,” said Julio.
“Bald Master,” I asked, “what is it you’re thinking but you don’t say?”
“Silvano seems to be a kind of sacrifice,” he said quietly. “What you find out will be disturbing.”
“You know that won’t stop us, don’t you,” said Julio.
Bald Master blessed us as we went out.
Julio’s wife Agueda, always jealous, was furious that he was going away with me. Julio told her only that we were worried because Silvano had disappeared. She banged pots and cups in the kitchen getting us coffee while Julio changed his clothes. While we drank the coffee he turned the television on. A newsreader was summing up: riots in five of the larger cities as well as the capital in favour of the rebels, the president, although he had taken possession of the other main television station, had no power base left (“On the other station they’re saying the opposite,” said Julio), citizens were asked to remain calm.
“Nothing new,” said Julio. “God knows what’s really happening.”
Before he could turn the TV off an officer appeared on the screen, calling on the country to hold out for a fresh beginning, and my heart missed a beat.
“I almost thought it was Silvano,” I said, realizing my mistake.
“So did I at first,” said Julio, “but it’s because he’s on our minds. Look. This one’s face is coarser and his hair is straight.”
“Yes,” I said. “But he’s still very like him.”
Julio admitted he was.
“And he’s handsome too, isn’t he? A fine hero.”
“I don’t believe in heroes,” said Agueda, who had joined us, but she was watching the officer as we went out.
Julio drove and before we had gone very far he stopped at the entrance to the barrio in the old quarry.
“What’s here?” I asked.
“Luisa lives here. I want to know what she meant by what she said to you yesterday.”
“Do you think she knew Silvano was dead?”
“No. If she knew that she’d be too scared to say anything. But she might give us some clue. She might have seen him since we did. We have to take up any lead there is.”
I got out of the jeep and followed Julio in the dim light through a maze of arches, stairs and alleys off alleyways. At the top of the heap Julio stopped and banged on a door. No one answered, though we could hear movement inside. We waited and finally Luisa, pudgy in nothing but a long T-shirt, opened the door. She was flustered and not pleased to see us. The room behind her was almost filled by the dirty, dishevelled bed; clothes were flung over a sagging line, a board with candle-ends and the smutty statues of María Leona and a cacique was nailed to one wall, and there was a gap under the tin roof by which an agile person could come and go from the hillside above. I felt sure someone had just gone that way, especially as Luisa glanced nervously behind her as we stepped inside the door.
“We would like to know,” said Julio without preamble, “when you last saw Silvano?”
“Why?” she asked, aggressively.
“Because he’s missing and yesterday you seemed to know something about him.”
Her eyes flickered, and I thought she became afraid.
“Why are you worrying?” she said more quietly. “He must have gone to the Mountain for the festival.”
“Maybe,” said Julio. “When did you see him last?”
She thought for a moment and said, “I saw him on Tuesday evening.”
“At what time?”
“About half past eight.”
After he left Bald Master’s house.
“At the temple?” asked Julio.
“No, at the Chama bar. He was drinking with the boys.”
“Yovany, Pedro and El Gato, I think it was.”
“Did they stay long?”
“No. I looked round again a bit later and they’d gone.”
“Where were they going?”
“How should I know? It’s not my business to ask where those bastards are going. That’s all I know,” she added sharply.
“Then why did you tell Helena Silvano had to stay away for his own good?”
“Because I wanted to shock her – just to see her silly superior face.” It burst out of her and I felt the impact of being hated for no reason I could imagine.
Julio put a comforting hand on my shoulder and said threateningly to Luisa, “You mean bitch! There must be a reason why you said he had to stay away. Why?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything,” she repeated, almost shouting, and Julio said:
“OK. I’ll be back.”
“I’m sorry, Helena, she’s just an envious bitch,” said Julio as we went back down the steps.
“Never mind that now,” I said. “She knows more than that, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, and she was scared. But I doubt she knows Silvano’s dead. She won’t know anything important. No one trusts her.”
“Is she a whore?”
“Was it Yovany, Pedro or El Gato who had just left her bed?”
“So you thought so too? Most likely it was their boss, Miguelito. He’s a mean little bastard, but when he’s around Luisa looks like she could eat him. I bet he was there on Tuesday night too and she didn’t want to tell us.”
“Why is he their boss?”
“They’re a gang. Thieves. Drug dealers.”
“Whatever was Silvano doing with people like that?”
“I don’t know,” said Julio, “and I don’t like it. We’re going to find out.”
We stopped once more, at my house. It was full daylight now, and anxious people looked out into the street as we drove up. I bathed quickly, prepared a thermos of coffee and threw some clothes and camping gear into the jeep, and in the meantime Julio asked some of my neighbours if they’d seen who broke my window. The man next door said his dog had barked fiercely at lunchtime, but when he looked outside he couldn’t see anyone. No one else had noticed anything, because it was around that time that the first news of the coup had come through, and everyone who was at home was stuck to their television set.
Ritual is an essential base for any great undertaking. It moves and concentrates human energies; it promotes bonding among followers. Commonplaces, yes, and true. But not the whole story. In a ritual – a ritual held as it ought to be, in the midst of untouched nature – the performers receive her blessing. She cannot help but give it. They are made of the same stuff she is, and if she is aroused she will help her own. And the shadow creatures too, the spirits that are formed incessantly from the desires that rise like a steam cloud out of the earth. They’re not too scrupulous, and they’re vain. The rite serves to flatter and persuade them, and if they suspect irony or manipulation or even defiance they are too conceited to pay much attention to it. Then there are the ancestors, and that’s a different matter. Some of them are clever, some of them can see what’s going on and they don’t always like it. Most of the dead are too dead to touch us, but ancestors don’t go away. You have to make it quite clear to them you mean what you say, and the rite achieves that as well. All these little gods hear their own names in the words we shout and a call to battle in crackling fire and they pour their strength into the performers and it overflows their ecstatic dance and gushes out over the land knocking down all obstacles to their advance…
It was not a good time to be on the road. There were check-points at all the towns and at many places on the open road, and we were stopped by police or soldiers at all of them. At the first one, Julio said my father was dying in San Felipe and he was driving me there to make sure I arrived in time. It wasn’t difficult for me to look distraught in the circumstances (my father in reality died years ago) and it worked.
“It seems too easy,” I said.
“They don’t know what they’re stopping people for,” said Julio.
We stuck to the story, though any excuse would probably have done as well. Most of the people on the road were simply trying to get home while they could, but the traffic wasn’t heavy and many must have decided to stay where they were till the situation was clearer. Sometimes we were waved straight through by the officer we spoke to; others kept us waiting for no apparent reason till they made up their minds to let us go on. The men were nervous, but we saw no violence that day.
At a village before we came to the mountain pass, a bus going toward Mucutay was being searched by the police. All the passengers had got down, and I recognized Horacio, one of the dancers from Silvano’s company. Julio stayed in the line of cars waiting to be checked while I went across to talk to him.
He’d been away from the town for a few days on personal business, but even before he left he hadn’t seen Silvano for some time. Silvano had been missing rehearsals.
“Is there something wrong?” he asked, with relish I thought. “Haven’t you seen him either?”
“Not for a while,” I said, “and he missed the rite at Shouting Hill. It seems strange. I just wondered if you knew anything.”
“Well Martín is not just wondering, I can tell you,” he said. Martín was the director of the company. “He’s furious. He’s cut Silvano out of the show.”
“Oh. That’s too bad.”
Plainly he was not unhappy at Silvano’s banishment; I knew that many people in the company were not friends of Silvano. I was turning to go when Horacio added, with transparent cattiness, “Perhaps you should ask Diana.”
“I’ll do that,” I said steadily, “if I ever get back”, and I gestured at the lines of cars and the police.
“Oh yes, such a nuisance, isn’t it?” he said, and giggled.
“Any help?” asked Julio, as I returned to the jeep.
“Not much. Silvano hasn’t been to rehearsal for days and he’s been cut out of the next show.”
I didn’t repeat to Julio the remark about Diana, the leading woman dancer. It made me uneasy and I preferred not to let Julio see that; I didn’t think she could be connected with Silvano’s disappearance. As far as I knew, she belonged to a dimension of Silvano’s life separate from the one that Julio shared and that we were now concerned with.
I got out the thermos and we had some coffee and Julio said, “Try to rest now.” So I leant back and shut my eyes as he drove down the mountains, but I couldn’t turn my thoughts off.
I thought of the first time I ever saw Silvano. He had already been in Mucutay for a while (he came originally from the coast and had trained as a dancer in Caracas), but since dance was not one of my particular interests, and I wasn’t going out much at the time, I hadn’t run into him. I had, however, heard of the beautiful male dancer. There are a lot of women without partners in Mucutay, and not many attractive men available as lovers. After my divorce I had brief affairs with several of them, until I began to realize that the women I talked to had been in bed with all the same men, the same ones I had, and my pride revolted. I decided to find other ways to make sense of my life; I joined the sun fellowship and started free-lance translating. But I still heard of new arrivals. It never occurred to me the desirable Silvano would be anything of mine.
Then a dancer friend asked me to go with her to the María Leona temple. She had a skin allergy nothing could cure, and the priestess there had a strong reputation as a healer. The temple was crowded the evening we went and we had to wait a couple of hours, sitting on a bench in the half-dark that smelt of incense, liquor, cheap perfume and flowers, for Laura’s turn to be attended to by the priestess at the altar. (She told her the allergy was caused by a colleague’s envy and would disappear with the baths she prescribed, as in fact it did). In the meantime my attention was absorbed by the banco, the young assistant to the priestess. He was the most beautiful man I had ever seen, tall but not exceptionally so, strong and supple, with bronze skin, curly, very black hair and large greenish brown eyes in a classically moulded face. He was dressed only in shorts and a T-shirt and moved with perfect balance.
I had no reason to associate this young man with the dancer, and was wondering how – and who – to ask who he was when Laura nudged me and whispered, “So he impresses you, the gorgeous Silvano!”
“That’s Silvano, the dancer?” I whispered back, not bothering to deny I’d been staring. “He’s a Leonite?”
“He’s a great devotee, apparently. He’s not your typical cultural male.”
“He’s not typical anything,” I said, and we stopped talking because people were looking at us. Silvano himself glanced towards us and half smiled. I thought he must have seen us watching him, because he couldn’t not be vain looking like that.
Laura was almost the last patient to go up, and as the meeting dissolved Silvano came across the room to us. He wanted to reassure Laura her allergy would be quickly cured; but he told me later that was mainly an excuse to speak to me. Seeing me at a distance, in the light of the altar candles and a few dim bulbs, he had recognized me as someone he had to know. I wondered whether he had expected a younger woman, but he said – he always said – my age was of no importance. Which was not true. I knew I was still an attractive woman, but an age difference of nearly twenty years must partly shape any relationship.
We didn’t leave together that evening, nor did Silvano ask how to get in touch with me. I could have gone back to the temple at any time, but it would have been too obvious I was there for him. When the dance company performed again I went to see them, Laura took me to the party after the show, and Silvano greeted me as a long-lost friend.
That night he came back to my house with me. That night I felt pleasure, joy, awe, wonder at being chosen for such a gift (yes, that’s how it felt) such as I had never imagined. And fear, too – already the beginning of fear. It was the start of several years of terrible happiness and insecurity, and of the fight to distinguish the warm, vain, brilliant, careless young man from the god that was born for me from the meeting of our bodies.
And what would happen to the god now that the man was dead? The god’s brightness had been with me for a moment while I let memory take over, but the thought of the human death brought me back to the present with a bump. I opened my eyes.
“Did you sleep?” asked Julio.
“Yes,” I said. It was simpler, and besides I must have slept for a while.
We were out of the mountains now, on almost flat terrain with scrubby plants, and goats trailing through the dusty earth, and low, thorny hills bounding our view. It was hot and the air was heavy and grey with dust. I insisted on driving for a while though Julio said he wasn’t tired (he doesn’t trust women drivers), and he talked to me, he said, to stop me going to sleep again. We discussed the coup. Julio – who teaches at primary school – is generally more interested in politics than I am and said he had known of stirrings toward it; he was worried because it had not succeeded outright and the country might have to suffer a lengthy confrontation between rebels and the army. Neither of us hesitated in siding with the rebels.
“I suppose it must be just a coincidence, Silvano being killed at the same time as the coup,” I said.
“What connection could there be?” said Julio.
I was silent. After a while Julio exclaimed, as if giving up the effort not to dwell on Silvano’s end, “But why, why, would anyone want to kill him?”
“And cut off his hand, and throw it through my window,” I went on.
“That could be meant to mislead,” said Julio.
“A bit extreme.”
We were silent again, until I asked, “Could it have been a jealous woman?”
Julio looked shocked. “Would a woman go that far to punish him? And you?”
“I suppose it’s possible.”
“She’d have to be a monster,” said Julio. “I don’t believe it.”
I didn’t believe it either. I thought back over the day’s disclosures and asked Julio one more question.
“Was Silvano using drugs?”
“He might have sniffed coke sometimes, but not as a habit. He liked his body too well.”
“I liked it too,” I said. Tears threatened to come, and I stared stiffly at the road ahead until the fit passed.
When I relaxed Julio said quietly, “He loved you. Don’t forget that.”
With all the delays, it was late in the afternoon before we came within sight of Lion Mountain. I had been here several times before, and always felt exhilarated as the long, steep, wooded hill rose out of the plain like a watchful beast lying with its head raised, but on this occasion it looked sinister. The air was still dirty, and the trees, which usually sparkled in the sun, looked drab as we approached. The parking ground was full of cars and buses; the weekend pilgrims had set out from home before the news of the coup. We left the jeep and took the trail into the wood, Julio leading the way.
María Leona is worshipped in many different forms and all of them can be seen at the Mountain. The altars we passed in the clearings among the trees were occupied by groups of devotees immersed in contrasting rites. One group were dressed in yellow or white, and the smell of flowers and incense rose with their soft chanting. The altar in front of them was piled with plates of fruit and sweets, and glasses of different-coloured cordials alternated with white and yellow candles. María in a shimmering silver and pale blue robe looked down on a couple holding hands, while a priestess prayed over them.
On one of my journeys here with Silvano, we had gone to the altar of a kind-looking priestess we didn’t know and asked to be married. I hardly dared think of the happiness of that moment – and what even then I had thought of as the absurd seriousness with which I had invested the rite. What had it meant to Silvano? A momentary whim, probably. He loved ritual. And he knew it would make me happy.
A bit further on, announced by a monotonous drum beat, men and women attired in shades of red, pink and orange were stamping round their altar with their faces daubed with blood and accompanied by the stink of burning meat. I felt hunger followed by a wave of nausea and moved on as fast as I could.
The Mucutay altar is up the river track, beside a big tree that overhangs a shallow pool surrounded by rocks. Gloria, the priestess, was standing in the stream where the water cascaded out of the pool, performing a cleansing for a middle-aged man and woman who were crouching in the little fall. She was in trance and two sturdy men were in attendance on her. Julio signalled to one of them and he held up his hand palm outwards.
“We’ll have to wait,” said Julio.
It was a relief to sit down on a rock under the tree. There was no blood here, only plates of fruit and glasses of water and liquor on the altar, and many candles burning in front of the painted statue of María Leona, naked, dark-skinned and tawny of eye and hair, with roses in her golden crown and a snake round her shoulders. Beside her were St. Doctor in his tidy dark suit and tie, the dashing Negro Segundo and a troop of warrior caciques. Well-meaning images. The sun was going down and the air moved softly around the magic combination of water, stone and growing tree. For a moment I glimpsed harmony.
The man Julio had beckoned to came up from the stream. From my stone I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I saw the man’s face become grave as Julio spoke. I joined them; Julio introduced him as Fredy.
“We haven’t seen Silvano here,” Fredy said. “He doesn’t come to this altar any more. He goes up to the caves.”
“What’s going on there?” asked Julio.
“It’s something secret. There’s only a few people they let up there. I say whatever it is it can’t be good. The Goddess doesn’t need secrets.”
“That’s right,” said Julio. “I don’t understand why Silvano …”
Fredy shrugged and glanced at me, sympathetically I thought. He was obviously not going to say what he thought of Silvano’s defection in front of me.
“And what about Miguelito and his friends?” asked Julio.
“They go up there too.”
We were silent for a moment and then Julio said, “Well, all we can do is go up and see.”
“It’ll be a waste of time,” said Fredy, “but since you’ve come this far…”
“You’d better be careful. Goddess go with you,” said Fredy.
We took another trail almost straight up the side of the mountain in the fading light. We’d been struggling upwards among the trees for twenty minutes and were breathless, when we came out on to a flat ledge a few metres wide and were stopped by three tough-looking men dressed only in black satin shorts and headbands.
“Get back! You can’t come up here,” one of them said aggressively.
“What right have you to stop us?” asked Julio.
“The general’s orders.”
“The general. Now go on back!”
“We’re looking for someone,” I said to one of the other men, who looked a bit less belligerent. “Could you take him a message?”
“And who might that be?” It was the leader that answered.
“El Gato, from Mucutay,” said Julio.
“He’s not here.”
“The Mucutay group told us he is,” said Julio; and I added “Please, it’s urgent.”
The three men looked at me and at each other, and the milder one shrugged and walked away round the rocks at the end of the ledge to the right.
“Why El Gato?” I asked Julio quietly.
“He should be easier to talk to,” he said.
The guard soon came back, followed by a thin, light-skinned, youngish man, with dull green eyes in a long head and a stoop – all of which I made out when he had come up to us, because it was almost dark now. The three guards carried on their own conversation at a distance from us.
“Julio,” said El Gato, expressionless.
“Gato, this is Helena,” said Julio.
“Yeah”, said El Gato, and there was something more than recognition in his glance. I didn’t remember ever seeing him but I supposed he connected me with Silvano.
“We’re looking for Silvano,” said Julio.
“Then what do you want me for?” El Gato asked, looking at the ground.
“We know you were with him on Tuesday night,” said Julio, “and no one has seen him since.”
“Who told you that?”
“And didn’t she say the others were with him too?”
“Yovany, Pedro and Miguelito.”
“OK. Where did you go?”
“We had a few drinks in the Chama bar.”
“He left us.”
“And you haven’t seen him since?”
“Didn’t you expect him here this weekend?”
“Yes, he should have been here.”
A chorus of shouts sounded suddenly nearby, and drums started beating. The three guards were looking at us as if we’d been there long enough.
“What’s going on in the caves?” asked Julio.
“Special rites,” said El Gato.
“And why aren’t we allowed in?”
“They’re not for everyone. It’s a mystery.”
“But we’ve never had these barriers in our María Leona group,” said Julio. “She doesn’t need them.”
“In your group,” said El Gato, “you’ve always despised me and my friends as scum.” It was the first time there had been any heat in his voice.
“And Silvano?” I asked.
“He knew better.”
“Knew?” snapped Julio. “Why knew?”
El Gato raised his eyes and looked at us, as if admitting he had made a mistake. His expression was more perplexed and scared than aggressive.
“Where is he, Gato?” asked Julio, anger coming through, and El Gato stiffened.
“I don’t know,” he said loudly, and walked away.
The three men moved toward us, menacing, and Julio and I started down the path as fast as we could go. They didn’t follow us, and after the first few bends we slowed down. We were stumbling in the dark.
“I shouldn’t have lost patience,” said Julio.
“He wouldn’t have talked to us,” I said. “Not with those three watching. He’s not very bright, is he?”
“He’s bright enough,” said Julio, “but he’s often confused. He goes into trance easily, and he smokes a lot of dope. If we could get him to ourselves we might find out more.”
“How are we going to do that here?” I asked, hearing the drums from above beat louder and faster. “What do we do now? Is there any other way to the caves?”
“It’s a long way round and we couldn’t get in anyway.”
“What are they doing there?”
“Black magic. Probably connected with the coup, if there’s a general involved.”
“They wouldn’t go as far as human sacrifice, would they?” I asked, falling over a root.
“No, Helena,” said Julio. “Don’t even think it. This is still the sacred mountain of the goddess.”
When we reached the foot of the hill I was suddenly completely exhausted.
“Will there be any food here?” I asked Julio. “We haven’t eaten all day.”
“Let’s go and see.”
The shop at the car-park that sold coffee and empanadas was open and busy. Fresh empanadas were just then being brought from the tin shack at the back of the shop. We bought a heap of the hot patties and settled ourselves on the bumper of a bus under the trees. While we were chewing, Fredy came along with a tiny little woman dressed in purple.
“Ah, you’re here,” he said, joining us. “Did you find out anything up there.”
“Not much,” said Julio, “They wouldn’t let us in, like you said. We spoke to El Gato, but he wouldn’t say what he knows.”
“This is Leticia,” said Fredy, and the little woman smiled at us. “Maybe she can help you.”
“I’m a medium,” she said. “Sometimes I can see where lost people are.” She looked infinitely kind.
“Will you try for us?” asked Julio.
“Yes. Just let me eat something first.”
We asked her to help herself from our pile of empanadas and Fredy fetched coffee for all of us.
“This person was from Mucutay?” asked Leticia.
“He lived there.”
“Then we could work at your altar. It might help.”
“If you don’t mind,” said Julio, “We’d prefer not to. We don’t want too many people to know he’s lost.”
“So we’ll go to a pool,” said Leticia. “You’d better get some candles.”
We finished eating, Julio bought candles at the shop and we walked up the river path till Leticia said, “Here will be good.”
We stepped down off the path and lit candles on the rocks around a small pool. Leticia sat on one of the rocks and smoked a cigar, puffing deeply. Soon she was swaying in her trance, and said in a man’s voice, “I am the Wandering Indio. Who shall I look for in my travels?”
“Silvano,” I said clearly.
Almost without a pause the deep voice said, “I may meet him. You will not.”
“Dead,” muttered Julio.
“Indio, can you tell us where his body is?” I asked.
“Running water,” said the medium.
“Here? On the mountain?” asked Julio; but at that moment someone shone a strong torch on to Leticia from the path above, and she blinked and shuddered and her trance was broken.
“I’m sorry,” she said, still confused. “It’s sad. He’s not here. I don’t think he’s anywhere near here.”
A woman’s voice shouted from the path, “Still after his body! Let him rot, the bastard!” I caught a glimpse of a pretty face in the torchlight, with a bulging figure in shorts below it.
The third message came in a male voice out of the darkness behind her. “Drug-peddlers are dangerous,” it said, and the figures moved on.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“The girl’s from Mucutay,” said Fredy. “She’s a friend of Pedro’s. I didn’t recognize the man.”
“Then Silvano’s disappearance is not a secret,” said Julio. They know something has happened to him.”
“People are beginning to talk,” said Fredy. “But nothing definite. You two coming looking for him adds to the rumour.”
“I’m sorry,” said Leticia again. “I was no help.”
“You were,” said Julio. “You let us know he’s gone.”
I thanked the little woman too and she hugged me.
“What are you going to do now?” asked Fredy.
“I don’t know,” said Julio. “Rest probably. It’s been a long day.”
But when we got back to the jeep we both felt it would be impossible to rest.
“If we had a torch,” said Julio after a silence, “it might be worth trying to approach the caves from above.”
“I have a torch!” I said, remembering there was one in the camping kit.
After a short argument, which I won, about whether or not I should go too, we set out again. In the clearings the night’s exorcisms had begun. Men and women were lying on the ground inside geometrical figures – circles, triangles, stars – marked out in white chalk and lined with candles of many colours. Others leapt and danced around them. There were flashes of burning gunpowder, hissing gas lamps, even a noisy generator illuminating with flickering light a large circle where a powerfully built woman in a short green dress stood gesticulating over a single prostrate figure. There was violence in the scene but not evil, not cause for fear.
As we began the climb by a different route in the darkness, I was suddenly aware that what was going on up above us was something different in kind, whatever Julio said about this still being the goddess’s mountain. What was being sought there was not healing but a darker kind of power. Julio used the torch, shading it with his hand, only when we couldn’t see the path ahead of us. We seemed to ascend for hours, though I knew I was climbing now against fear as well as fatigue. We went in silence, hearing the faint beat of drums in the distance.
At last we reached a ridge and walked along it. The drums were below us now, and getting louder. We came round a bend and saw, about a hundred yards further down, what looked like a brightly lit stage. The trees partly blocked our view, but I made out it was a bigger ledge than the one we’d come to earlier, hidden from it by the outcrop of rock on the right, which must be part of the cave. The light came from two big bonfires at the ends of the ledge. The rock also hid part of the stage, and the circle of men who were moving on it, all dressed in black and swaying and stamping round what looked like the effigy of a military officer, raising their arms at intervals and shouting a word or name I couldn’t distinguish. The shadows thrown by the firelight made their contortions even more grotesque.
“They’re all drugged,” I whispered to Julio.
“And I can’t see if El Gato’s there.”
Julio took hold of my arm. “Come on,” he said. “I was crazy to think we could achieve anything by coming up here.”
I had just strength enough left to get back to the jeep.
Now everyone begins to be involved. All their little problems, little tragedies, little mysteries, complicated and aggravated by the circumstances of war. And how many of them understand at all the implications of what’s happening, or have any sense of being part of an upheaval from the roots – of being characters, if only pawns, in a game of destiny? Almost no one. They’re concerned only with their private predicaments…
Help! Oh dear! Grandma’s feelings are hurt! Muddled, crushed, disappointed! Someone stepped on the pansy. That man was not what he appeared to be. It’s true I had no great illusions about his faithfulness, or even his seriousness, but black magic, drug-peddling, blowsy young girls in satin shorts! I want my Silvano back, alive first of all, and loving me, and dependable in some way, even if it’s only in his lightness and brightness. I can’t stand all these contradictions, I haven’t the strength to rise above them, I shouldn’t be asked to. Perhaps I can wipe him out, forget him, go home and pretend he never existed? But how can I if when I close my eyes I see him standing there, perfectly poised, looking at me with that fond and amused expression in his tiger’s eyes, and he raises his arms to me and I am going to run to him when I see that one arm ends in a bloody stump and as I hesitate the other hand falls off and then both arms and his head flops …
“Hey, are you all right?” asked Julio from the hammock next to mine under the trees. I must have shouted.
“No,” I said. “I mean yes. I was having a bad dream. It’s a lot to take in.”
“It is. I don’t like it either. But we still don’t know what happened. Maybe Silvano will come out of it better than it looks now.”
“You’re a good friend,” I said, and then I fell deeply asleep.
I woke at daybreak and went for a dip in the river, with most of my clothes on, as others were already moving about. The cold water left me feeling fresh and alert. Julio woke as I finished changing in the jeep, and asked, “Well, what do we do now?”
“So who is the general they’re worshipping up at caves?” I asked in return, following my own train of thought. “He’s not the officer we saw on the TV, is he?”
“Gálvez? No. He’s not a general. And I wouldn’t think black magic would be his style.”
“No,” I agreed. “Then is the general on the government side?”
“I don’t see how this cult would fit in if he is. We don’t know enough about what’s going on.”
“It’s time we found out,” I said. “Maybe we’d better get back to Mucutay where people talk to us. I’m worried about Bald Master, too.”
“There’s nothing we can do here anyway,” said Julio. “Everyone will be leaving by this evening.”
“If they can.”
“And if we can. Let’s try.”
We had coffee at the stall and set out. Police had blocked the road at the entrance to the nearby town, and when we stopped the officer who came up to the car said nothing but stood scrutinizing us.
“Look,” said Julio. “There are a lot of people at the Mountain and they all have to get home. You surely aren’t going to make us all stay here.”
“It’s a problem, isn’t it?” said the officer, who was enjoying the situation. “But we’ve decided to give out passes. Then it’ll be up to your luck.”
“That’s reasonable,” said Julio.
The officer suddenly smiled. “Things have changed,” he said. “From now on there’ll be respect for the citizen.”
“You’re with the rebels!” Julio exclaimed.
“The patriots,” said the officer, writing the jeep’s license plate number on our pass. “Viva Gálvez!”
“Viva Gálvez!” we said, and we grinned at him as we drove off.
The pass worked at the first roadblock, but then we came to one where the men forming a human barrier across the road were not in uniform and were mostly armed with staves, although one of them held a rifle. They looked at our pass and shook their heads.
“That’s no use to us. We no longer recognize the authority of the armed forces.”
“Look,” said Julio, “we’re on your side. So was the policeman who gave us this. But we have to have it to get through the army checkpoints. If you stand for freedom, you will let us get home.”
They conferred, and a very young boy leant on the window of the jeep and told us, “OK, we’ll let you go, but be careful. Viva Gálvez!”
We’d taken the old road, which branches off into the mountains further north than the newer highway, and from that we took some unpaved short-cuts that were tough going even for the jeep – one came down a series of steep and sharp-angled bends to a river where the bridge had washed away and which we were barely able to ford among the rocks – but in that way we avoided all but the smallest villages, where no one challenged us, and had no more trouble until we joined the main mountain road again just below the pass.
From there on we had to sit in long queues of people trying to get home. Most of the checkpoints were deserted though in some places there were soldiers beside the road and in others groups of rebels had strung up banners with “Viva Gálvez” written on them in shaky letters. There was fighting going on in two towns; we heard firing and saw smoke in the distance.
We reached Mucutay well after dark to be told at the checkpoint there was a strict curfew, but a calm army officer gave us a pass to take us as far as my house, where we made soup from tins and went straight to bed – or more exactly Julio collapsed on the sofa downstairs and I fell on to my bed without undressing.
In the morning after a quick breakfast we drove down to Julio’s barrio through almost empty streets. I said hullo to Agueda and got only an angry look back, so I left Julio to make his peace with her and his children while I went across to Bald Master’s house.
Bald Master was plainly relieved and pleased to see me, but he was not looking well. He was whiter than ever, and his eyes were drooping.
“It’s true,” he said when I remarked on it. “I don’t feel good. I’ve run out of medicine and I haven’t been able to get any more. The chemists are shut and the hospital’s in chaos with the wounded from the fighting.”
“So you’ve been taking something besides your flower drops?” I asked. Natural medicine was part of Bald Master’s message.
“I’m afraid so,” he said, looking ashamed. “They’re great for stimulating the chakras. But they don’t stop the pain.”
“But that’s terrible,” I said. “I’ll find some medicine.” And I would have gone immediately, but he made me sit down first and tell him everything we had heard and done. Julio soon joined us and added to my account.
“And what is your conclusion?” asked Bald Master at the end of it. “Is Silvano’s death connected with what is happening at the Mountain?”
“How can we tell?” said Julio. “We don’t know what he had to do with the people there.”
“Yet you felt sure that El Gato knew something?”
“We both did,” I said. “Though he seemed to have nothing against Silvano. Rather the opposite.”
“Then you will have to watch El Gato and his friends here,” said Bald Master.
“Did you hear anything?” I asked.
“Clemente down the street saw Miguelito sneak past at the right hour of dawn to take the hand. He didn’t see him enter the house.”
“Was Clemente sober?” asked Julio.
“Is he ever sober?” said Bald Master. “But I didn’t put the idea into his head. He came up with Miguelito’s name himself.”
Bald Master suddenly swayed and leant against the wall where he was sitting on his futon. Julio helped him lie down.
I said, “I’m going to find medicine for him. There must be something available in this town.”
“I’ll wait till you come back,” said Julio, “and then I’m going to talk to Luisa again. On my own.”
The chemist’s shops were closed, except for two that had been looted; medicines were too expensive for a lot of people to buy normally. I got a pain-killer for Bald Master from a doctor friend, who said he must make it last as long as possible.
The jeep was almost out of petrol – we’d filled up the last time at a remote mountain town – and I tried to get some, but all the pumps were empty.
I went back to Bald Master’s. He was meditating but turned as I entered the room. His face was taut and his eyes were shining; there was a little bottle with a picture of an orchid on it on the altar. He thanked me for the medicine and said he felt better and insisted I must go home and try to rest.
“After all Silvano is dead,” he said quietly. “You aren’t going to save him.”
“But I can’t just let it be,” I said.
“No, you can’t. But act calmly.”
I could tell he wanted to be alone – he had sent Julio away too – so I left him. He called after me as I went through the door, “And don’t suffer for me too!”
A short detour on the way back to my house would take me to the dance theatre. I didn’t expect anyone to be there, but I decided to try. I found a group of people sitting disconsolately in the front rows of seats and on the edge of the stage, about half the company, including Martín, the director, and Horacio, the dancer I had spoken to at the roadblock.
Martín looked at me and said, “You don’t have any good news for us, do you?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “I hoped you might have some for me.”
“No sign of Silvano then?” said Horacio.
His gleefulness annoyed me. I said, “None at all. But at least he’s not missing any shows.”
“We could have rehearsed,” said Martín, “since we’re thinking of doing without him, but unfortunately our leading lady has vanished too.”
Now they were all watching me. I kept my face as expressionless as I could.
“Oh,” I said. “How long ago did you lose her?”
“She went to Caracas on Tuesday,” said Horacio, still with that irritating gaze. “I didn’t know when I met you because I’d been away myself. She promised to come back the very next day. I was allowed longer, but of course I’m not a leading lady.”
I forced a smile. “She must have had an urgent reason to go to Caracas for one day.”
What Diana chose to do was no business of mine; it was clear to all of us that I was asking because her disappearance coincided with Silvano’s.
“She said,” – it was Laura who helped me out – “that she was worried about her father and wanted to see him.”
“Was he ill?” I couldn’t stop.
“I thought that was what she meant. But after the coup I wondered. Her father’s something high up in the army.”
“What side do you think he’d be on?” asked Roberto.
“The government, of course,” said Jaime. “I don’t see Diana with a socialist father, do you?”
“Then how could she have been worried about the coup a few days before it happened?” asked Martín.
“How should we poor innocents know what goes on at those levels?” said Roberto.
“Absent for political reasons then,” said Horacio, with his silly giggle.
“Well after all,” I said, “she only had to stay in Caracas an extra day or two and it would have been very difficult for her to get back. Have any planes been coming in?”
“Only military ones,” said Martín. “Of course we aren’t expecting her to arrive now.”
“And you’ll have to wait patiently for Silvano too,” said Horacio.
I managed to say goodbye civilly, and drove home.
In my house, exhaustion overcame me – exhaustion and a sense of unreality. I stood in the middle of my sitting-room and looked round at the comfortable furniture, the french windows leading to the veranda, the untidy bookcase and the shrine to the dancing gods, and it was a stage set, or perhaps a room that had been familiar long ago, in another life. I noticed the hole in the window, and that did seem to have a bearing on the present, but my thoughts refused to follow it up. I opened the doors and went out into the garden. Sprays of red roses were blooming and there was a strong scent of gardenias, but I had taken only a few steps across the lawn when I started trembling. I didn’t feel afraid but I was sure that horrible surprises, pieces of bodies, shrivelled monsters, bloody rags, were hidden in the flower beds and among the ferns. I had just enough control left to go back into the house, lock the doors behind me and drag myself upstairs to my bed.
I slept for some time, not restful sleep but blankness alternating with delirium made up of images from the last three days, the shuffling, candle-lit trance of devotees at the Mountain, Bald Master’s swollen pallor, the jeep racing across the grey plain or bumping round bends above precipices. When I opened my eyes again it was because I was suddenly stricken and overcome by jealous rage at Diana.
I did not know Diana well. She had been with the company only a year, and while I had often gone to the theatre to meet Silvano and occasionally joined them all for a meal or an evening party, she had made it clear she considered me of no account and I had made no effort to ingratiate myself with her. She expected to be treated as a leading lady, and whenever she could – at least when I was present – she manoeuvred Silvano, usually her leading man on stage, into poses suggesting a royal couple superior to the rest of us. Of course she couldn’t have done it without some assistance from Silvano, but he told me he found it amusing. He told me he didn’t like her, and was not interested in her as a woman.
I could see them now, standing together at the head of a table or framed in a window, about the same height (Diana was tall for a woman), but a contrast in other ways. Her black hair was long and straight, her skin, though not white, was lighter in colour than Silvano’s (as king and queen they’d have been Egyptian), her eyes were very dark. They were both beautiful, both vivid. When they danced, the physical differences between them were magnified by movement. Silvano’s energy was compact and flared or flowed effortlessly like an animal at one with a habitat of changing sound; her perfection was at the same time more self-conscious and more mechanical, which gave a hint of ruthlessness to her strength. I’d even found the contrast aesthetically disturbing at times.
Bullshit! So they were different, they didn’t seem to adapt to each other smoothly. So what! Difference attracts. Even if he didn’t like her, he could surely not resist the determination of such a fascinating woman to seduce him. And if she got him she’d keep him. I’d lose him this time. Everyone at the theatre was sure they were lovers, almost sure they’d gone away together for the weekend and were now held up by the coup.
And I know that’s not true, don’t I? A dead hand was lying on my sitting-room floor on Friday evening. But what if they did go off together and he was killed and that was her way of letting me know – a slap in the face with rubbery fingers. Julio and I went rushing off to the Lion Mountain on the basis of nothing more than conjecture. What if Luisa and El Gato looked suspicious because they can’t help it, and the rites up at the caves have no connection with Silvano’s death? What if it’s a crime of passion?
That pulled me up. I couldn’t see Diana as a murderer for love. I didn’t think she would allow any man enough importance to find him worth killing; and anyway why should she kill him if she’d won him over?
But it still seemed possible we might have been looking in the wrong direction and Diana was the person we should be following. How and why she should be involved in Silvano’s death I had no idea; but I had no clear knowledge of any other aspect of the situation either. As well as I was capable, I tested this new idea for reasonableness against my hurtful jealousy, and decided that it should be acted on.
It was late in the afternoon; I could do nothing until next day and until I had talked to Julio. I decided to stop stewing in my distress and go to the rotunda for the sunset rite. The Sun rotunda is in the park behind my house, with views up the valley to the mountains where the sun rises and down the river through the treetops and the bridge to the lower hills where it sets.
I arrived just as the people there were sitting down to pray. They weren’t many and most of them – Rosario was there – glanced up with a gesture or smile of recognition before settling cross-legged and with half-closed eyes facing down the valley. I couldn’t concentrate at first, and the words of the mantra that I knew was turning over and over in their minds had no grip on mine. Then they began to take hold. “Om, bhur, bhuvah, svah” – I am part of you, three orders of being, inertia of soil and stones and bones, unfolding power of living tissue, fronds, fingers, immeasurable shaft of dreams. Suddenly my mind’s eyes were looking out over pasture that belonged to no time or space in my own experience.
With beautiful clarity I see grass stretching away in yellow light toward a river bank where figures are standing – a man in a loincloth and two women in tucked-up red saris. Along the edge of the field to the left is a row of tall poplars whose tops are swaying in the breeze. As I watch, a vaporous blue cloud filters out of the trees and rises, swirling and condensing into a mass of soft-outlined figures, that make swimming movements with their feet and hold out their arms toward the sky. A deep musical note, like a horn or marimba, sounds first quietly then louder and louder while the sun’s rays catch the floating blue figures in their spinning and free fall and soaring in the golden brightness. The man and the women are in the river now, splashing with circular movements of their arms, so that showers of water drops sparkle in the sun’s rays.
While I watched the drops, the light turned from gold to red and the vision faded; I opened my eyes and the red sun was going down into flat clouds beyond the trees. The music of the wraiths’ dance became an insistent siren over by the police station. Gradually the joy and the confidence of creation in its own resourcefulness, that had shone in the timeless landscape, faded out of the immediate reality, but they left behind a sense of relief.
The others opened their eyes, got up and stretched their legs. Rosario beckoned me out of the building.
“I’ve been worried about you,” she said. “Are you all right? Have you heard from Silvano?”
“No, I haven’t heard from him,” I said, “but I’m all right. And how are you? Is it very tense in your part of town?” Rosario lived next door to the army barracks.
“It’s awful,” she said. “Nobody seems to know who’s in charge. Half the officers are in favour of the coup and the other half against. This afternoon the government lot seemed to have the others locked up, but at any moment there’ll be a battle.”
“If that happens,” I said, “come with your mother to my house.”
“Could we really?”
Walking back through the park I met Laura.
“I went to your house,” she said, turning back with me, “and then it occurred to me you might be here.”
“It’s a while since you came to watch the sunset.”
“Martín leaves us no time to ourselves. Though today he had really no excuse to keep us. We hung around as if we were afraid to leave each other because we mightn’t ever meet again.”
“If I were you I’d find that a relief in some cases.”
Laura smiled. “Horacio? He’s unbearable isn’t he? But not really bad.”
“How mean do you have to be to be bad? He was loving watching me suffer.”
“Are you really worried about Silvano?”
“And you don’t accept Horacio’s explanation?”
I wondered whether to tell Laura the truth, or part of it.
“Not altogether,” I said finally. “I have reasons for believing Silvano may be dead.”
Laura is a sensible woman, and sincere. She was shocked but she looked at me hard and said, “You don’t want to explain, do you? I won’t ask you to. I came to tell you something. It may or may not be important, but I thought I should tell you anyway.”
“Diana didn’t fly to Caracas on Tuesday afternoon. I was at the airport to meet someone and I saw all the Caracas passengers go out to the plane and she wasn’t there.”
“And you’re sure she was going to take that plane?”
“Yes. It was part of her promise to be back on Thursday at the latest.”
“Didn’t you tell the company?”
“No. I didn’t want to listen to their speculations. She could easily have got a lift with someone by car on Wednesday – or on Tuesday night.”
“Or later,” I said, “if she didn’t mean to be back in time. Or she might not have gone at all.”
“She could be anywhere,” Laura agreed, “but somehow I think it was true that she wanted to see her father. She adores her father.”
“What’s his name?”
“Saúl Ribera. General Saúl Ribera.”
“Yes. Quite an important one, it seems.”
“And he’s in Caracas?”
“That’s where he lives.”
“How in goddess’ name can I get to Caracas?”
“I wish I could help you,” Laura said.
“You have, my friend. Tell me something else.”
“Silvano was having an affair with her, wasn’t he?”
“I know it for a fact,” she said, straightforwardly. “They have not been discreet. But I’m also quite sure he’s not in love with her. The idea of them going off for a passionate weekend doesn’t make sense.”
With the situation stated in plain terms I felt more relieved than hurt.
“I should have known it,” I said.
“It’s getting dark. We must get home,” said Laura, as we reached my street. “I hope your suspicions are wrong. Let me know if I can do anything.”
“I will. Thank you.”
I remembered I had hardly eaten that day, so I had some stale brown bread and cheese, then went back to bed and fell fast asleep. Around midnight the doorbell rang. I went downstairs to look through the peephole with my heart beating hard, but it was Rosario and Josefina, her mother, carrying bags.
“I took you at your word,” said Rosario. “They started fighting inside the barracks and we ran while we could.”
“Welcome!” I said, waving them inside. “We’ll help each other survive. I’ve got plenty of food.”
“We’ll cook for you,” said Josefina.
I settled them in the spare bedroom and we all slept.
When I woke in the morning, quite late already, I was glad not to be alone in the house. Arepas were cooking for breakfast. While we ate them we listened to the radio and discovered that the split in the country was no longer between the government and Gálvez’s rebels; the station we were listening to, which was in the hands of the Gálvez faction, informed us that the president had fled the country and the enemies of the people were facing them now in the crudest guise, that of a right-wing army league with the support of some of the very rich.
“So that was what was happening in the barracks last night,” said Josefina.
“I wonder who won,” I said.
“But that means civil war,” said Rosario, and we stared at each other, silenced. The radio announcer was using the same term, “civil war”, a heavy sentence for the whole country.
I had hoped Julio would come to see me, but since he didn’t appear I decided to go to his house. Josefina and Rosario tried to dissuade me from going out but I told them I had a problem that had to be attended to urgently and would explain it to them later. The jeep being almost empty of petrol, I set out on foot, down the edge of the park and under the bridge, counting on getting a lift when I came up to the road. I was lucky – a truck had just finished unloading onions at the neighbourhood market, and the men told me to hop in.
“So the army’s not going to let us starve,” I said.
“Who knows?” said the driver. “They told us not to come back tomorrow.”
I got down at the entrance to the barrio and found Julio mending the tyres of an old bicycle to get to my house on. Bald Master saw us from his doorway and called us across. He was looking a little better.
“So what have you been doing?” he asked.
Julio and I looked at each other. “You first,” I said
“I went back to talk to Luisa again, and made her think we found out more than we did. I told her we know they’re all drug dealers and her boyfriend Miguelito is the leader of the gang, and if she wants to avoid trouble for herself she’d better tell me what she knows about Silvano.”
“And how did she react?”
“She flushed and sweated, but she denied knowing anything. She wouldn’t have said anything even if I’d beaten her up. I thought of doing that, but I found I couldn’t,” Julio said, apologetically
“I’m sure you couldn’t,” I said. “It’s not your style.”
“I should be able to act out of style if necessary,” said Julio. “Shouldn’t I, Bald Master?”
Bald Master just laughed.
“That’s all,” said Julio, “except that Miguelito strutted past here yesterday evening and threatened me by staring at me. If he wasn’t really dangerous he’d be funny.”
“You’d better be careful,” I said.
“I am. And what about you?”
I told them about my visit to the dance company and my talk with Laura.
“It’s too much of a coincidence that Diana and Silvano disappeared at the same time,” I said in conclusion. “This might be the right trail after all.”
“Do you think perhaps a dog snatched the hand from my bed?” asked Bald Master.
I couldn’t help a startled laugh. “I know, Bald Master,” I said. “It doesn’t all fit together.”
“Perhaps Diana knows Miguelito and El Gato,” Bald Master suggested.
“I find it hard to imagine Diana having anything to do with those thugs,” I said.
“So do I,” said Julio.
“But they could have met through Silvano,” I said.
“Why?” said Julio. “He was good at keeping his different worlds apart.”
“And her father is a general.”
“That is an odd coincidence. But there are lots of generals in this country.”
“Don’t you think it’s worth me trying to talk to Diana?” I asked Bald Master.
“Oh yes, I think it will be very important,” he said. He was quietly amused and I knew he was savouring the drama my jealous imagination had created.
“So now I just have to find out how to get to Caracas,” I said.
“The first stage,” said Julio, “is you help me repair those tyres and I’ll give you a lift home.”
“I’m sorry Helena,” he said, while I was cutting out small rubber patches on his doorstep, “but I guess you had to find out about Silvano and Diana.”
“Did you know?”
“Yes. He finally gave in to the bitch. He said she’d never stop pestering him till he did.”
“Is that a good enough reason for a man?”
“As long as the woman’s not repulsive, I guess it is.”
“Well,” I said, “I never supposed he was faithful, and the fact of their relationship doesn’t bother me too much after the first nasty jolt, but I wish he hadn’t lied to me. There was no need.”
“Yes,” said Julio. “You know I’m not the type to analyze people, and I always just thought of Silvano as my friend, but I’m beginning to realize he wasn’t a very admirable character. Maybe he got away with too much because he was so good-looking.”
“I expect so,” I said.
I could have said a lot more but the subject was too complicated. I had thought about it often when I suffered from Silvano’s absences or suspected he had some other lover. It was not ordinary possessiveness. Being so much older than him, I knew I couldn’t keep him to myself and I didn’t want to limit him. But he aroused a longing in me that could only be calmed by his presence. His attention, our common laughter, our lovemaking, but above all his presence and his physical image. In what way was Silvano identical with his beauty? I struggled to keep separate the person and the idol, and often didn’t succeed. And how did it affect him? Did it give him special dispensations? Did he believe so? In any case, it was well enough said. He got away with too much.
Julio’s son Mateo came down to help and finally the tyres were ready and inflated. Agueda, with her little daughter Conchita at her side, made her usual jealous fuss and called me quite audibly an “old bitch”; Julio was, as usual, unperturbed. The bicycle was a woman’s machine with a carrier at the back. I managed to perch on that while Julio pedalled. Some of the steeper parts of the route we walked, and we avoided the main roads. We reached my house with a sense of achievement.
Josefina and Rosario were waiting for me anxiously.
“I think,” said Josefina as we sat down in the kitchen, “you had better tell us what is going on. It has to do with Silvano, doesn’t it?”
Julio and I – mostly Julio – gave them a summary of the situation. As soon as she heard of Silvano’s death, Rosario put her arms round me and started to sob, exclaiming from time to time, “Oh how awful for you, Helena”, though when Diana came on the scene she switched from sorrow to anger.
Josefina listened calmly and when Julio had finished she said, “So you’re determined to find him?”
“Yes,” said Julio and I together.
“Do you think they’ll be in danger too?” I asked Julio.
“Not as long as they stay here quietly, no.”
“But what are you going to do?” Josefina insisted.
“I’m going to try to get to Caracas,” I said.
“But what’s the point?” asked Rosario. “You’ll probably get yourself killed and anyway it’s too late to do anything for Silvano now. You won’t even find his body.”
“Probably not. But I have to find out what happened to him. I couldn’t live with the memory of him otherwise.”
“Even if he was such a bastard?”
I had to smile at Rosario’s vehemence. “One of the things I have to find out is just how much of a bastard,” I said.
“Did you have lunch?” asked Josefina.
“No,” said Julio. “My wife was angry. And what’s on the stove there smells good.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said. “I feel I should be doing something. The day has nearly gone and we haven’t got anywhere.”
All three of them turned on me. They lectured me about not letting myself go, forced me to eat and sent me to bed for a long rest.
Later in the evening I got up and watched TV with Josefina and Rosario – the different versions of what was happening in the country – and then went to sleep again quite early.
I don’t like to ask favours of my ex-husband’s friends, but in this case necessity ruled. Early next morning I dressed in black and walked to the airport, which is not too far from my house, and got to see the head air traffic controller by claiming to be his comadre – he’s a relative of Juan’s and was often at our parties. He was pleased to see me and asked who had died. I confessed my mourning was a disguise because I had to get to Caracas urgently. He told me the airport had at no time fallen to Gálvez’s people and was now in the hands of the right-wing military; he had kept quiet and stayed in his place. He could probably get me a seat on a plane which had flown in with some officers and was about to leave again.
I was not the only person who had used pull to get on board. There were about twelve of us, all glancing suspiciously at each other as we took our seats. I folded my arms over my black-clad breast and looked soulfully out of the window as the plane took off and turned over the valley to follow the line of the mountains north. I saw buzzards wheeling on a level with me against the bare sides of the tallest peak. In spite of my anxiety, I felt the usual intense pleasure at the view of the rocky páramo with the lakes glittering like inscrutable eyes in a monstrous upturned head. It was a sphere outside petty human worries, earth hospitable only to the toughest bodies and the imagination that desires extremes.
The plane being smaller than the commercial ones, the flight took longer than the usual hour. The two men sitting behind me got to chatting; they were both friends of the right and agreed that this rebellious nonsense would soon be put down and the country would finally have a decently strong government. When we landed a woman approached me and asked how I was getting up to the city. It was a problem I hadn’t considered, and I gratefully accepted a lift in an army staff car. It occurred to me my hosts would know where to find General Saúl Ribera, but I could think of no excuse to ask. I could see the woman wanted to talk to me, but her uniformed husband sat stiff and stern, and we made the ascent of the motorway in silence. The flat-roofed, raw brick shacks still swarmed over the hillsides like my idea of ancient Rome with no suggestion of armed strife; but the main avenues in the city were almost empty of traffic. I guided the driver to the aging apartment block in the Italian district where my friend Maggie lived, where I always stayed when I went to Caracas, thanked my hosts and climbed the stairs to her flat.
Maggie wasn’t there – she’d gone to her place in the country – but her eighteen-year-old son Salvador accepted my arrival without surprise. He said, “Hi! Your usual room’s free,” and gave me a house key.
I had a wash, changed out of my black clothes, sat down on the bed and wondered what to do next. I could think of nothing more inspired than to look in the telephone directory, so I went back out to the sitting-room. I found the entry immediately – Ribera, Gen Saúl – and while I was searching for pencil and paper to write down the address, Salvador looked up from the computer magazine he was reading and said, “You’ll be lucky if you can get through. Most phones are not working.”
“You mean some of them are?” I asked.
“In some parts of the city. Ours is.”
“In Mucutay they aren’t at all,” I said, and my hand was trembling as I picked up the receiver to try.
At the third ring a woman’s voice – it sounded like a servant’s – answered, and I asked for Diana.
“She’s not here now.”
“But she’s in Caracas?”
“Yes. Who wants her?”
“Helena, from Mucutay. I’m in Caracas, and I’d like to speak to her.”
“Give me your number and I’ll tell her when she comes in.”
I gave Maggie’s number and rang off.
Again I felt at a loss. I found it impossible to judge whether Diana would answer my call. Whether or not she was involved in Silvano’s death or even knew about it, she might or might not find it useful? interesting? amusing? to speak to me. There was no point in tormenting myself with the question. But there was nothing I could do now but wait and see if she did call. I was also very hungry.
I felt ashamed to search Maggie’s kitchen for food, so I asked Salvador whether any stores or restaurants might be open in the quarter.
“Not yet,” he said. “Help yourself to anything you can find.”
“But I don’t want to deplete your reserves.”
“Don’t worry. By tomorrow or the next day all the stores will be open, you’ll see. Coup, war, whatever, people have to eat.”
“And if the army doesn’t let them open?”
“Which army? This is such a mess, no one will be obeying anybody soon.” The prospect seemed to please him.
“OK, I’ll take your word for it,” I said. “Have you had your lunch?”
“I ate a snack, but if you were making spaghetti I wouldn’t say no.”
We were eating the spaghetti when the phone rang. It was Diana, and she was so pleased I had called her. Did I have any news of Silvano, because she’d been expecting him in Caracas, before the coup, and he hadn’t arrived.
“I was going to ask you the same question,” I said. “I haven’t seen him since before the coup either, and I have reasons for believing something may have happened to him.”
“Something bad?” she asked in an exaggerated drawl. “You must tell me about it. Where are you? I’ll come immediately and pick you up.”
“Yes, I think we should talk about it,” I said, and I gave her the address.
Salvador was staring at me. “That sounds like war too,” he said. “Finish up your spaghetti. You need your strength.”
I finished it, and on impulse called the number of Silvano’s family (I hadn’t seen much of them or got on well with when I had seen them), but there was no connection. When the doorbell rang I felt strong and calm enough, even if certain that in guile I was no match for my opponent.
Diana came upstairs, perhaps curious to see what a flat in that rundown building would be like (it was nice actually, spacious and light, if untidy). She embraced me with the warmth of a long-armed robot and kissed me on both cheeks, in the European way. Salvador stared at her, fascinated, and offered her coffee.
She said, “My driver’s waiting downstairs, but if it’s quick, all right.”
I repressed the impulse to rush to the kitchen to prepare it and let Salvador go while she and I sat down facing each other. I could see why he was captivated. Diana had dressed, and was bearing herself, as a heroine. She was wearing a red jersey legging suit with a very short skirt, and a long, filmy scarf of a more orange colour. Her magnificent legs were lengthened further by high-heeled gold bronze shoes. She had a ribbon of the same metallic colour plaited into her long black hair and on one side of her head she wore an ornament that looked like a dead bird with iridescent feathers and a bleeding breast. Her eyes were made up like a cat’s and her mouth was vermilion.
“It’s not real,” she said with an amused little smile; I was staring too openly at the bird.
I felt like a rebuked child. “It’s clever,” I said. “They must be real feathers.”
“Oh yes.” She gazed indifferently round the room and was silent.
I had nothing ready to say. Diana was leaving it to me to start to talk about Silvano and though I’d come so far for that purpose I felt very unwilling now to do so. I was the supplicant in the case, I thought, and she was going to make me feel it; she’d come so quickly to meet me only to enjoy the sooner watching me squirm.
After a long pause I asked, “How is your father?”
“My father?” she asked, turning to me, and I saw that without expecting to I’d startled her.
“Yes. Laura said you’d come to Caracas because you were worried about him.”
“Ah, that. He was having some tests, but it was only overwork.” She was impassive again. “And how are those dear people?”
“The dance company? The ones I saw were well. Unhappy at your absence. Martín was furious.”
“I bet he was,” she said, and her smile this time was one of girlish complicity. I was horrified to find myself reacting to it in kind. This was my opening to mention Silvano, but at that moment Salvador appeared with the coffee, so I let it pass.
“Come,” she said when we had drunk it. “I’m going to take you for a drive.”
She flew down the stairs in her spike heels while I clumped heavily behind her in my sandals. A Mercedes the colour of her shoes was waiting in the street. The driver opened the back doors for us and drove away without instructions from her; the trip, then, was already planned.
It was Diana who introduced the subject of Silvano, carrying on our previous conversation as if it had not been interrupted.
“Martín must be furious with Silvano too.”
“Even more so, it seems. Horacio told me he cut him out of the next show.”
“Do you think I’d let him do that?” Diana asked scornfully. “I wouldn’t dance without him.”
This was meant to stress their attachment; it also gave me an easy opening and I forced myself to take it.
“You were expecting him in Caracas, you said?”
“Yes. I came on Tuesday because of my father and he was supposed to join me on Thursday. We were going to play truant from the company and spend the weekend together at the beach.” She said this with wide-eyed simplicity, looking straight at me.
I neither shrank nor blushed. I said with the same simplicity, “He had an appointment with Bald Master on Friday, and it’s so strange he would let him down that we started to worry. We’ve been asking people and no one has seen him at all since Tuesday night. We hoped you would know where he was.”
“You said you had reasons for believing something had happened to him,” said Diana with a worried little frown.
I’d forgotten I’d told her this. I looked out of the window as the car sped along the deserted overpass leading to the luxurious enclaves in the south-eastern hills. I was under strain, controlling my own expressions to preserve what dignity I could, and observing hers to discern what lay behind what I increasingly easily recognized as theatrical poses. I had to make an immediate decision. I could mention rumours of the drug trade among the Leonites and go no further. But if I hoped to learn anything from her reaction I would have to produce more striking evidence than that. And it was possible she already knew far more than I did.
“What are the reasons?” she asked, intensifying her frown.
“His hand was thrown through my sitting-room window,” I said.
“His hand?” She looked truly horrified.
I said nothing.
“But are you sure it was his?”
“Oh yes. It had his ring. And it was recognizable – it was his hand.”
“But what condition was it in?”
“Dead. There was no blood on it. It was probably cut off after he died.”
“But was it decomposing?”
“No. It must have been treated with something.”
“And where is it now?”
“I don’t know. Some one took it, from Bald Master’s house.”
I thought she was relieved. “But how terrible for you,” she said, and the facade was up again.
Again I said nothing.
“Then you aren’t looking for Silvano,” she said. “You’re trying to find out what happened to him.”
“That’s right,” I said. “I imagine you will want to know too.”
“Of course. The people we are going to see now may be able to help us.”
The car wound up a hill between the high walls of large properties and paused at the crest in front of a pink grille which opened to admit us. Inside was a huge villa of pale pink stucco and large expanses of glass, surrounded by a perfect lawn with islands of splendid tropical plants.
A man-servant opened the door to us, half bowed to Diana and said, “The señora asked me to take you straight to the temple.”
Diana nodded, and we followed the man up a flight of stairs and along a corridor lined with native Indian artefacts to a closed door. He knocked, and a middle-aged woman with dyed blonde hair put her head round the door; she opened it wide on seeing us and we stepped into a space that was like nowhere I’d ever been before.
It was a large, high, rectangular room and the whole of one long wall was glass, shaded by semi-transparent red silk curtains, which made the inside glow like a cool furnace. It was a temple to María Leona, but it was as different from the local centres and the mountain shrines as a Baroque cathedral from a chapel in a slum. There was no jumble of gaudy statuettes splashed with candle wax nor chipped enamel plates with offerings of sweets and fly-blown mangoes. There were no bare brown beer-bellies or tight satin shorts on view. We processed across the thick white carpet toward the altar at the far end, and at each step the statue of María loomed larger, a more than life-size bronze figure of the young Goddess in a shimmering gold tunic, her honey-coloured hair (it was real hair) blowing lightly around her shoulders and breasts with the breeze in the room and her arm on the neck of a haughty mountain lion with piercing emerald eyes. Her own eyes were sparkling amber crystals and her face held both pride and sweetness. She wore a simple crown of gold and jewels. She stood on a dais about breast-high to me, with powerfully smelling forest lilies banked all round her and perfectly symmetrical palm trees framing the dais. In front of her, on a lower ledge, was a crystal fountain of what looked like white wine, and on each side of that were mounds of unblemished yellow pineapples and red peppers on silver platters and many-branched silver candle-sticks with tall red and yellow candles.
The carpet was cut to leave a semi-circle of bare white marble in front of the altar. Three heavy chairs of dark wood and leather stood there, on one of which was seated an elderly man dressed in a dark red monk’s robe. The cigar in his hand, at least, he had in common with priests of the cult elsewhere. Drums and stringed instruments lay on the marble.
Diana bowed slightly to the priest, calling him “Lucindo”. There were six or seven people standing near him, all wearing elegant clothes in shades of red; the dyed-blonde woman, Mimi, our hostess, was the least polished of the group. They must have been listening to Lucindo’s reading of the cigar as we came in; the group had broken up and turned to face us. They saluted Diana with nods of their heads and did the same to me as she introduced me. I thought I saw amusement in the eyes of some of them, and I was aware that, whatever other reasons for it there might be, I cut an inadequate figure in that setting, in my jeans and blue shirt and without makeup. I wondered whether Silvano had ever been in that room; he would fit there whatever he wore, with his bronze skin and puma’s grace.
I stood in front of the altar and bowed my head to María. Whatever these people claimed of her, she was as much my goddess as theirs. When I turned round, Diana had taken Mimi aside and was muttering fast to her. Then Mimi joined me at the altar and handed me some wine in a silver cup that was standing on the rim of the fountain. She said gravely as I sipped it, “I am sorry for your loss.” If only I could have believed she was sincere, if this had been a commemoration and not a test of nerves and cunning, I could have broken down and wept my sorrow clean at the feet of the goddess.
The moment of weakness passed, and I turned, thanking her politely, in time to see Diana addressing the rest of the group in the same hurried manner. There was a visible shifting of attitudes, as if the play to be performed had been changed for another at the last minute. But the actors were accomplished. They all looked sorrowfully at me. The old priest beckoned to me; I went to stand in front of him and he said in a high-pitched, educated voice, “We have been hearing of your friend’s death. Please accept our sympathy.”
“He was Diana’s friend too,” I said. I felt swamped by attention.
“Oh yes,” he said, as though it was irrelevant (Diana herself was expressionless now), and he continued to direct his compassionate gaze at me. “We shall do all in our power to discover his fate. He was one of us, a Leonite?”
“Yes,” I said. “He was a banco at the Mucutay centre.”
“Did he go often to the Mountain?”
“Yes, and more often lately. I went there with another devotee, asking about him, but no one could tell us anything useful.”
“He hadn’t been seen there?”
“He hadn’t been seen at the Mucutay altar for a long time. They told us there he’d been going to the caves, but we were forcibly prevented from reaching them.”
“Oh, he’s been at the caves?” said Lucindo. “They are sensitive to intrusion there. But it’s just a matter of style. I know people who are well received there; I shall pass the word to them to probe into the matter.”
The whole group smiled and stirred faintly as if at a satisfactory solution. I knew I was being swindled, but I was far from being ready to make direct challenges, so I decided to fall in with their script. I also relaxed visibly and said “Thank you.”
“Can you think of any reason why someone should have wanted to harm, er, Silvano?” asked a youngish woman with her eyes painted so round they looked like headlamps.
“No, I can’t,” I said. “That is what is puzzling me most.”
The group muttered in chorus about it being strange, perplexing, nerve-wracking; I felt my answer suited them well. In fact they seemed generally well pleased with our interview. Our hostess invited us to have coffee in the garden.
Lucindo blessed me in the name of the goddess, looking deep into my eyes. I concentrated on the thought that, even if he wished me harm, she was my ally as much as his. We were all walking with measured steps down the white carpet, Diana slightly in front, when the door opened and a short, balding man in scarlet pyjamas came in. Mimi held out her hands as if to stop him, but he didn’t see. He walked quickly toward Diana, knelt in front of her (everyone had stood still) and put his head on her feet.
Diana bent over and pulled him up. “Uncle Jorge, what will you do next?” she said with a fond laugh, staring at him coldly.
I thought the man behind Diana winked at him, but he noticed nothing. “And how is the dear General?” he asked.
“Well, thank you,” said Diana and walked on.
Mimi took the pyjamaed man by the arm and introduced him to me as her husband. She bore him off down another corridor while the rest of us went downstairs and outside. When our hosts joined us again Jorge was looking chastened and he was silent while we drank our coffee.
The group talked about dogs (there were two beautiful Irish setters in the garden), and I was able to contribute knowledgeably to the conversation, which, ridiculous as it may seem, raised my morale. Also because I have an affinity with dogs, who are so close to earth and yet dream.
Diana asked me whether I wanted to stay for the evening rite or go home. I was caught off balance; I thought she was making all the decisions. The idea of returning to the red-tinted room with its undercurrents of deceit was repulsive; besides, if Diana was happy for me to stay, it meant she had the situation under control and I would be unlikely to learn anything further. On the other hand, I was curious about the rite, and I felt I should persevere while I had the opportunity.
Everyone was waiting for my answer. “If we’re not going to be too late I’d like to stay,” I said. “Your altar is so beautiful.”
I felt they were not pleased at my decision, but they said “How nice,” and we all returned, rather hurriedly, upstairs to the temple. Lucindo, with the larger-than-life presence of an actor, led a rite that consisted of flowery prayers to María and sharing wine from the fountain. I watched the participants as closely as I could without being too blatant, and I didn’t feel any of them was a genuine devotee, except, unexpectedly, Diana, who at one point started trembling and swaying as she stared wide-eyed at the goddess. She pulled herself together quickly, and after that seemed to be waiting impatiently for the old priest to finish his recitation.
As soon as he did, and blessed us, she turned to me and said it was time to go. The rest of the party was obviously going to stay. They all said goodbye genially and wished me success in my search. The old priest blessed me again. I followed Diana across the carpet to the door repeating under my breath a mantra to ward off evil intentions.
“Old Lucindo is powerful,” said Diana, as we drove back down the hill. “If Silvano died at the Mountain, he will find out for us.”
“What kind of power do you mean?”
Diana’s glance was almost indignant. “Spiritual, of course. He’s a great medium.”
I didn’t answer. Ideas were coming together in my mind. The power at the caves was a general. Diana’s father was a general, known to this group. Diana herself was an object of veneration, though the people at the villa had tried to conceal the fact. If Silvano’s death was connected with the caves, they probably knew about it already, though they wouldn’t tell me; they had been prepared for me only to be looking for him alive. Diana of course knew he was dead too. What didn’t fit in was the apparently genuine shock she had felt when I told her about the hand.
“Did you tell those people about the hand?” I asked her.
“No, I spared them that detail. They didn’t know Silvano anyway.”
On impulse I asked her another question. “Did you really care about Silvano?”
Diana was furious and couldn’t hide it. She said nothing but her face reddened and her whole body tensed. I didn’t understand her reaction, but it was clearly a very personal one, and I felt I’d scored a blow.
The driver asked where we were going and she told him to take me home. It seemed that baiting me had lost its appeal for her, at least for this occasion.
Salvador was out. I tried the television. There were only two stations working, and they were still broadcasting nothing but propaganda for their opposing sides. I listened to Gálvez appeal to the people to go on resisting the enemies of freedom and justice. At least, he said, in the new situation they were clearly identifiable, and there was a chance to get rid of them once and for all. The country’s true spirit, of brotherliness and ingenuity, would be able to flower. Gálvez’s resemblance to Silvano was not constant but they could have been relatives.
I turned to the other channel, out of curiosity to see the faces. I knew what they’d be saying: law and order, the economy, world status. The face filling the screen was that of an aging officer with a puffy face, opaque eyes and a harsh mouth. Then the camera drew back, and another officer standing beside him came into the picture. He was a male version of Diana, older, bonier and more worn, but with the same features and the same hard arrogance.
“Oh please let him be identified!” I said aloud.
I didn’t have to wait long. General Saúl Ribera was invited to speak, and he dwelt on the junta’s connection to a heroic native tradition. He used several times the word ‘blood’ and though quite coherent seemed to me fanatical and possibly mad.
There’s one spirit that’s greater than the rest. She has power over bodies and minds and a man must woo her and show her his worth to get her on his side. María of the lion’s grace, the lion’s fierce swiftness, María whose eyes are deep as forest pools and lead into the cavernous mysteries of the earth, María who flies on the streaming wind of her heaven and leads her chosen warriors to their fulfilment. Chosen warrior. The warrior’s mate, too, will resemble her, will have her pride and her sleek, dark beauty – and if she gives him, because she can, oh yes she can, the right to transgress, she will also have the softness of a girl, little more than a child really, yielding, so sweetly, to her master. The Goddess gives him this right. Of course she herself can’t submit, but she allows her servants – her priestesses – to do so. Thus the man’s worship of her will be intensified, and knowing himself favoured he will return her favour with greater devotion. And she will be behind him in everything he does and he will be invincible. No one can hide anything from him. And still a man may think that if anything should go wrong, since we’re dealing with women after all, he can count on his own strength and cunning above theirs. But shhh! Some things shouldn’t even be put into words.
I went to bed early; my head was full of the strange, luxurious temple and what I had seen there, but I succeeded in detaching myself from the images and going to sleep. I wasn’t exactly getting used to the pain and tension of the circumstances, but my body had taken over to the extent of making sure I got enough food and rest.
In the morning Diana rang and said we must meet again. Perhaps together we could think out how Silvano had disappeared. She was emphatically friendly again, all anger forgotten, but the falsity in her voice seemed to twang down the telephone line. I wondered what I was in for. Misleading recollections about Silvano’s movements? Confessions about their passionate relationship intended to hurt me? It occurred to me momentarily I might also be in danger; but of course I agreed to see her. She said she would pick me up right away.
In fact she kept me waiting, watching the same things over and over on television, chatting to Salvador and developing a strong sense of my own powerlessness without her; it was almost midday when the gold Mercedes stopped in the street below our building.
“Time to ride with the Valkyrie again,” said Salvador, who had been keeping a watch out. “She’s signalling for you to go down.”
I looked out to wave back. Diana was in black today, with a snaky looking black and white scarf wound in her hair, round her throat and reaching almost to her feet. Her lips looked black too.
“Well, is the vision worth all the waiting?” I asked Salvador.
“Oh yes. It’s Star Wars for real.”
I went down to the car and as we moved off Diana apologized for being late. She’d had to do an errand for her father.
“I’m going to take you home with me for lunch,” she said. “You’ll meet him.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” I said brightly, and I did feel pleased. It was partly a conventional reflex of gratitude for the invitation, however misplaced in the context, and mostly the anticipation of satisfactions for my intense curiosity. I thought how one doesn’t stop being oneself even in the unhappiest circumstances.
Diana’s smile didn’t hide her scorn for my naivety. But after a moment she switched expressions and sighed.
“Now that I’ve slept on it,” she said, “I wonder whether Silvano did really mean to join me in Caracas. He wasn’t very reliable was he?” She looked at me appealing for solidarity.
I was puzzled. If she’d decided to stop triumphing over me by showing me she was Silvano’s favourite, she must have a good reason for it – something she wanted to deflect my attention from. I didn’t like much better the idea of playing fellow victims with her, but decided I’d better swallow my pride.
“No, he wasn’t,” I said steadily, “but what makes you think that?”
“The first time I suggested the beach to him, he said he had something important to do in Mucutay at the weekend. But when I told him we could have the yacht to ourselves, he said he’d come.”
“There was his promise to Bald Master,” I couldn’t help saying.
“That wouldn’t have mattered,” she said, the old arrogance flashing out.
“But at least he’d have told Bald Master he wouldn’t be there,” I insisted calmly, and Diana remembered the role she was playing and said of course he would, and that was one of the reasons why she wondered what he had really meant to do.
“Have you any idea what his important business was?” I asked.
“He’s been involved with a bad gang lately,” she said, “and they might have needed him for something.”
“You mean the drug dealers?” I asked. It appeared Silvano had had no secrets from her.
“So you already knew about that?” she asked, with a little frown that was real. “Then why did you come after me?”
“Because you and Silvano disappearing at the same time was too much of a coincidence. The dancers were sure you were together.”
“They’re fools!” she exclaimed, and since she herself had been telling me how well founded their suspicions were, her reaction seemed inconsistent to say the least. I glanced at her; she was gazing out of the window, probably wondering how to patch up her script, and her head, hands and arms, her whole body in the snaky harlequin outfit, was trembling very slightly. For the first time I wondered about her sanity and felt, to my surprise and almost horror, oddly sorry for her.
“So you think his death had to do with the drug trade?” I asked after quite a long pause.
“It’s the obvious explanation, isn’t it?” she said, pulling herself together. “I think we can assume it’s the truth.”
And on that perfunctory note the discussion ended. I wondered what we were supposed to talk about during the rest of my visit with her. In the mean time we were driving up into the hills not far from the villa of the day before. This district was not quite so luxurious, however, and Diana’s home, when we reached it, was large but not palatial, a newish house built on several levels into the hillside. Inside, it was furnished in conventional middle class bad taste, with plush and gilt and bad paintings and knickknacks everywhere.
“It’s awful, isn’t it?” she said, noticing me look round the sitting-room we had entered. “My aunt did it. My father and I don’t have time for such things.”
“Does your aunt live with you?”
“Of course not. I’m the mistress of the house.”
She signed to me to sit down on one of the plush chairs, but she herself remained standing. She looked restless, as if she was waiting for something.
“So how does your father manage without you while you’re in Mucutay?” I asked.
“A woman comes in to cook and clean. And my father doesn’t spend much time here. The army’s his real life.” She spoke with some bitterness, I thought.
“Why did you choose Mucutay?” I asked. “With your talent surely you could have got into the National Ballet.”
“Of course,” she said, “but actually I wanted to go away for a while and see how I managed. You know how you do when you finish studying.”
I had never heard her sound so girlish and unsure of herself, and I wondered what painful struggles between attempted independence and the pull of this sad home, with its no doubt selfish head, lay behind her words.
“Yes,” I said, and smiled to encourage her.
“But I won’t be there much longer,” she said. “I miss my father too much.”
Just then a tall figure in uniform descended lightly the wrought-iron staircase at the end of the room and came toward us, and I stood up. He moved like a jungle animal and I immediately found him horribly attractive. Diana introduced us, and as he shook my hand he looked me over quickly from head to toe. I felt glad I had taken the trouble to dress well and the green slacks and patterned silk blouse I had borrowed from Maggie’s wardrobe sat well on my still firm figure. I scolded myself at the same time for my reaction, but I was pleased that he seemed to like what he saw of me.
Diana was not. She stepped toward her father and put her arm possessively round his waist. “Helena is a friend of the dance company in Mucutay,” she said. “They asked her to find out why I haven’t gone back.”
I could have sworn the general took her remarks at their face value. And in that case this was not an interview prearranged for me to be convinced of any new lies – or dissuaded from any ideas about him and the possible connection of the cult he figured in with Silvano’s death. Unless Diana meant to turn the conversation in that direction, knowing he would understand and second her. And if not, whatever had she brought us together for?
“And what will you tell them?” asked the general, smiling. His smile was neither forced nor warm.
“That she stayed a few days to look after her father,” I said, smiling myself at the two of them as they stood in front of me.
“Quite right,” he said. “I miss her too.” His arm was on Diana’s waist now.
Diana was satisfied. “We’d better eat,” she said, leading us into the dining-room, where the table was already served. “Father is busy at the moment – he doesn’t often get home for lunch.” (She used the word “padre”, not the more familiar and usual “papa”.)
“I’m not surprised,” I said, taking the plunge with no clear idea of what I meant to achieve. “I saw you on television last night,” I told him.
“Did you now?” he said, and of all things he was amused. I supposed I struck him too as hopelessly naive. If so, all the better. “And which side do you favour in our present contest?”
“I don’t know enough about it to take sides,” I said, feeling cowardly but reminding myself of my real reason for being in his house.
“I suppose you don’t,” he said. “But you’ll be happy when we get the country under control, you’ll see.”
Diana kept glancing at the man across the table from her with contained adoration, as aware of him as if he was her lover. I had no sooner thought this than I understood with total conviction that he was her lover. It gave me a physical – sexual – shock, but I continued my silly woman’s chatter without showing any sign of it.
“Do you think it will be easy to defeat Gálvez?” I asked.
“Gálvez is nothing,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It was my people that promoted his rebellion, to help get rid of the president. But we’re taking over now.”
I thought how interested Julio would have been in that statement, but I didn’t allow myself to comment or even look surprised. Instead, I turned to Diana and said, “Have you noticed how much Gálvez resembles Silvano?”
She looked at me with a kind of puritanical horror, and said nothing. Could she not stand having Silvano mentioned in her father’s presence? But the general laughed and said, “That young fool? Yes, you’re right. Perfect ineffectual handsome heroes, both.”
I wondered where the general had met Silvano, but to ask that would be going too far. I realized I had spoken of Silvano myself as if he meant nothing to me, and hoped Diana would not conclude from this that I also was capable of deviousness. At the moment, at least, she was more concerned with the fact that her father had finished eating and was getting up to leave, excusing himself for his haste.
If I had not already become aware of their relationship, I could hardly have failed to recognize it now. The general apparently didn’t care what I thought – or was he partly showing off to me? – and Diana was positively flaunting their intimacy. She went round the table to press her whole body against his and tell him not to come home too late. He kissed her on her black lips. He shook hands with me and said he hoped we’d meet again (I murmured goodbye and thank you), and Diana followed him out of the room to see him off at the door. She came back with her eyes glowing and suggested we have coffee in the sitting-room.
Conversation over the coffee, which was brought by the maid, was not fluent. I sought for an acceptable question and asked Diana if she wasn’t worried about the general’s safety in the present state of war; she answered, with obvious conviction, that nothing could happen to him and he was bound to win. I thought of rites up at the caves and in the temple at the pink villa. The general had plenty of magic support, and Diana presumably had faith in it – as well as in the qualities of the man himself.
I ventured, “He’s an extraordinary man, your father.”
She might have been waiting for the opening. She said, or almost declaimed, “Now you can see why Silvano didn’t mean much to me. He was nothing compared to the man I live with.”
I understood that this statement had been the real purpose of her invitation to her house. It was the answer to the question I had unnerved her with the day before as we drove back down the hills, whether she had really cared for Silvano. She was not confessing her relationship with her father, and certainly didn’t want to discuss it with me. What mattered to her was I should have no doubt that Silvano had not touched her heart. She was not even concerned at the moment whether I considered her involved in Silvano’s death; the message she was giving me was about their relationship, and for her self-esteem it was essential I should I understand it.
There was no answer but assent, and I said, with another rush of disconcerting pity for her, “I can see that – your father’s a real hero.”
She smiled, pleased and with a touch of shyness; and confirmed my conclusion about her invitation by saying she was tired and she hoped I didn’t mind if she sent me home in the car by myself.
I had been thinking since the morning that it would be stupid of me not to get in touch with Silvano’s sister and brothers living in Caracas, since I had come so far and there was a chance they might know something that could help me. The obstacle had been transport, but now it occurred to me I could at least try to take advantage of Diana’s driver.
“Could you leave me off in Chacao instead?” I asked him. “It wouldn’t be far out of your way.”
“It’s no problem to me,” he said, brusquely. “You know it’s not safe to be moving round.” He sounded as if he’d be quite happy if something bad happened to me.
“My risk,” I said; and when we came off the motorway I directed him to an old building several blocks up from the main avenue, on which we could see fighting at a distance. The driver stopped scarcely long enough for me to get out of the car and sped away up the empty street.
I rang the doorbell of flat number four and waited. I had been here only once before, when Silvano and I been on our way to the coast and he had stopped to pick up something his sister was sending to their parents. The old couple – who were charming, and kind to me – still lived in their village by the sea, but Silvano’s sister and two brothers had moved to Caracas with him at the time he went to dance school and had lived in this flat ever since, the group now including his sister’s husband. Their lack of interest in meeting me had amounted to rudeness, and Silvano had made no effort to get us talking.
I rang the bell again and a window opened above me. Belkis shouted down “Who is it?”
“Helena,” I answered.
“For God’s sake!” she said. “Come in off the street!”
Steps sounded immediately on the stairs and the door was opened by Vasco, her husband. I followed him up and found the rest of the household ranged just inside the door of their flat, staring at me with curiosity and almost friendliness.
“Are you alone?” asked Beltrán.
“Yes,” I said, wondering now what kind of story to tell them. I suddenly felt sick at the idea of mentioning the hand again.
“You’re a brave woman,” said Vasco. “It’s dangerous out there. Sit down.”
I sat. Belkis disappeared into the kitchen. I took a deep breath and said to the men, “I know it’s dangerous. I’m taking the risk because Silvano seems to have disappeared and I’m looking for him. I thought you might know something.”
They looked at each other. “We haven’t seen him for months,” said Beltrán. “He doesn’t bother to keep in touch if he doesn’t have a specific reason. How long has he been gone?”
“A bit over a week,” I said.
“Is that all?” said Vasco. “The coup was nearly a week ago. He’s probably just stuck somewhere.”
I said nothing, wondering how to go on, and Belkis returned bringing me a cup of coffee, which I didn’t want.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she said (I thought she probably did), “but couldn’t he have gone away with a woman?” “A younger woman” was as audible as if she had said it, and the three of them glanced at each other with knowing little smiles. Only Gabriel, the eldest brother, who Silvano usually referred to as his mad brother, still didn’t speak and looked uncomfortable.
I started to sip the coffee to give myself time. “I know that seems the most likely answer,” I said (after all, how many women must they have seen crazy about Silvano), “but in fact I do have reasons for believing something has happened to him.”
“What?” they all asked, again except Gabriel, and any friendliness in their attitude was already being replaced by suspicion.
I couldn’t speak. They were, after all, his blood relatives, and what I had to say was bound to be shocking.
“Look,” said Beltrán, “you have to tell us. You can’t just get us worried like this and then not tell us.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I think he’s dead. Someone found his hand.”
Belkis shuddered and gave a sick gasp, and Vasco said, “But where? How? How do you know it was his hand?”
“In a house in Mucutay,” I said. “And it had his snake-ring on it.”
“And you don’t know what happened to him?” asked Beltrán.
“No,” I said. “I’m trying to find out.”
They looked at me with distaste, as if it was my fault, turned their backs on me and went into another room. But not Gabriel, who waited till they had gone and said, gravely and with sympathy, “Come with me.”
He led me into his bedroom, and for a while I forgot everything except that smallish space and what was in it. The dominant colour, walls, ceiling, thick cotton cover on the narrow bed, was dark blood red. There were many old books and old photos, too many and too different to be family, on shelves, with old, partially eviscerated clocks and watches and large and creepily realistic black plastic rats, scorpions and beetles. There were plaster, metal and disfigured plastic effigies of babies, some of them with wings. There was a striking Christ head drawn with a finger in the thick dark brown paint on the door of a heavy safe. And there were the goddesses.
I glanced at Gabriel; he was watching me seriously, studying my reaction to his world, and I thought he deserved complete sincerity. Tears started running down my face as I looked from one to the other of his two altars. They were both unbearable, one for the pain and horror it portrayed and the other for its desperate aspiration. On the first, a twisted, skull-like, cement goddess head, cruelly grimacing, was flanked by the red-painted, androgynous figure of a guardian warrior and a hunch-backed witch; below it, the child was another cement head, leprously pitted and warped and with burst black glass eyes. The other altar consisted of a worn stone pedestal, with several large thick books on it to make it higher, on which stood the torso of an old female mannequin, long-necked and elegant, draped only in a collection of heavy necklaces of coloured stones. Real bird’s wings had been stuck on either side of the head, and the eyes had been painted with some semi-opaque substance so that they almost turned up into the skull but still expressed a passionate, knowing nostalgia for lost heights.
“She doesn’t want to be down here,” said Gabriel, as I stared at the dreaming figure, “and she won’t look at anyone unless they understand her. But if she looks at you her eyes can cure you.”
I started sobbing then, and looked for a tissue in my bag.
“Sit down,” said Gabriel, and when I did, on his bed, he laid his hand very briefly on my head and then sat down himself well apart from me. I was aware of his presence as kind and prickly at the same time, masculine but quite unappealing to me, though he was a shorter, rougher version of Silvano. I wondered if he was gay.
“I’m sorry,” I said, when the sobs subsided. “This has been such a terrible time and I didn’t expect to see anything so beautiful.”
“What are you sorry for?” asked Gabriel.
“Did you make the figures?”
“Silvano never told me you were an artist.”
“My family never thinks of me as anything but a madman,” he said. “You saw what they’re like.”
“I suppose they were shocked,” I said. “But you must be too.”
“Not really,” he said, without explaining. “It was you that found the hand, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. Someone threw it through my sitting-room window.”
“And you’ve no idea who?”
“None. And at the beginning I had no idea why anyone would kill him either. I’ve found out quite a lot, but it still doesn’t make much sense.”
I summed up for Gabriel as clearly as I could my discoveries from the caves – not forgetting the references to the drug trade – the temple in the pink villa and my visit to Diana and her father. He listened without comment, but when I finished he suddenly shouted with laughter and as suddenly was serious again.
“My brother could never live without complications,” he said. “Come, we’ll go and talk to Simón.”
“An old friend. A Leonite. He goes to the Mountain a lot.”
As we were leaving the flat, Belkis came out of her room and said to Gabriel, ignoring me, “Where do you think you’re going? It’s dangerous outside.”
“Just round the corner,” said Gabriel, and ran down the stairs with me after him.
Simón’s place was not just round the corner, but it was only a few blocks away, a ground floor flat in another oldish building. These streets were still empty and quiet, though the sounds of fighting down on the avenue were louder. Simón opened the door immediately; he was clearly pleased to see Gabriel and he looked at me penetratingly when Gabriel told him who I was. He was very dark-skinned and looked like a wrestler. He invited us into his rather dark kitchen and we sat down at his plastic-topped table. He got three cans of beer out of the refrigerator and put them on the table, with one glass, for me.
“Something has happened to Silvano, hasn’t it?” he said sitting down.
I decided to let Gabriel explain and he just nodded slightly.
“Someone left his hand at Helena’s house. She’s trying to find out what happened.”
Simón sat for a moment in silence. “I knew he was in trouble,” he said finally. “I saw him at the Mountain a couple of weeks ago with some of the general’s men. Those people are bad news.”
“Helena found out they’re into drug trading,” said Gabriel.
Simón glanced at me surprised and said, “And that’s about the least of it.”
“Who is the general?” I asked.
“He’s been on TV the last few days. One of the leaders of the right. But they say he’s mad, a complete fanatic, and really only interested in power for himself.”
“The he’s the man I met today,” I said.
“You’d better watch how far you go,” said Simón.
“But what was Silvano doing involved with those people?” I asked.
Gabriel and Simón looked at each other and Simón sighed and said, “We stopped asking why Silvano got mixed up in stuff years ago, didn’t we Gabriel? He could never resist a new adventure. He had no scruples, though he wasn’t a bad person. Well, you know all this.”
“Yes, I suppose I do,” I said.
“But he was always lucky,” Simón continued. “I guess he trusted his luck. Do you remember,” he went on to Gabriel, before any of us could remark that his luck had finally run out, “the time the bunch of them stole that yacht and were swept out to sea because none of them knew how to sail it?”
Gabriel was smiling. I asked “What happened?”
“Well finally they got it under control and got back. And the gale had battered most of the yachts in the harbour and the owner was so pleased his had escaped that he told the police to forget it.”
“So you’ve know him since you were kids,” I said.
“I’ve known the whole family since we were kids. He was the little one, but he was also the cheekiest, the most daring and the biggest liar. And a good friend.”
“Did you talk to him at the Mountain?” I asked after a pause.
“His friends in black shorts wouldn’t let me talk to him alone.”
“Was he wearing black shorts too?”
“I’m afraid so. I told him to come over to our altar and he said he would some time and then they took him away with them. I could see he wasn’t at ease, but what could I do?”
“But he wasn’t a prisoner, was he?” asked Gabriel.
“No,” said Simón. “If he’d wanted to get away from them he still could have.”
“Would he have found it an adventure to be transporting drugs?” I asked, remembering unexplained absences of Silvano that I had tried to overlook.
They didn’t answer, but I could see that they both believed he would. Simón got out more beer.
“The explanation of his death is most likely something to do with drugs,” I said slowly, filling my glass, “but I would still like to know more about the general and what he expects of his followers. Especially because his daughter lives in Mucutay and was involved with Silvano too.”
Simón stared at me. At that point there was a knock on his door and he got up to answer it. When he came back he said, “It’s the poet who lives upstairs. He’s been feeling a bit scared alone and he heard our voices and wants us to go up. He’s some connection of the president – ex-president – and he usually knows a lot about what’s going on in politics. He might know the general.”
The three of us climbed up to the next floor and entered a large, untidy room (there were books stacked everywhere) with big windows. A heavy vehicle rumbled by in the street outside as we entered. Straight in front of us was a round table covered in empty bottles, and the plump, florid-faced man welcoming us, whom I recognized as a well-known poet, was not steady on his feet. For a moment I couldn’t think what I was doing there – the whole situation had become surreal.
“Please sit down,” he said, subsiding himself into an armchair next to the table. We sat down on the hard chairs beside it. “Excuse the mess,” the poet said to me. “The cleaning-woman hasn’t been here for days.” I just smiled at him.
“Come on, Poet,” said Simón, who was obviously at home in the place, “this room is always a mess.”
“No it isn’t,” said the poet indignantly. “I know exactly where to find all my books.”
“Books and bottles,” said Gabriel, meaning nothing in particular, and started to arrange the bottles on the table in a pattern.
The poet raised his eyebrows and stared at him for a moment, came to a conclusion about him and smiled to himself. “Why do you get visitors, interesting visitors,” he asked Simón, “and I sit here all by myself wondering what’s going to happen?”
“We’re all wondering what’s going to happen,” said Simón, “and you’re in a better position than most to guess.”
“Oh, I’ve been guessing all right,” said the poet. “My guesses get wilder and wilder as the day goes by. And the bottles. Would you like a drink, by the way? There’s rum and beer.”
“Beer will be fine,” said Simón, and went into the kitchen to fetch beer for all of us. “Are you really not talking to anyone?” he asked as he returned.
“My daughter’s checking up on me, if that’s what you mean,” said the poet, “but it seems unwise to talk about the political situation on the phone. Friends of the president are not popular at the moment. Nor likely to be so again. Do you live in Caracas?” he asked, turning suddenly to me.
“No,” I said, “I live in Mucutay. I came here looking for a friend, Gabriel’s brother, who seems to have disappeared – and who was involved with the cult of a general at the Lion Mountain.”
Whatever the poet thought of the rest of the facts in that complex sentence – and several reactions chased each other across his expressive face – it was the general that claimed his attention.
“Saúl Ribera!” he exclaimed, with unexpected force. “That evil man! I can’t bear to think what will happen to this country if it falls into his hands.”
“How likely is that?” asked Simón.
“How should I know? No one I was talking to even realized he was a threat. You said your friend was in his power?” he turned to me again; I could see he felt sympathy for me, but he gave me no time to answer before he launched into a monologue on what was obviously an obsession with him.
“Ribera represents an atavistic tendency in society – atavistic and apocalyptic at the same time, if you can grasp that. He’s our local version of the Prince of Darkness. You’ve heard how he keeps talking about blood? Blood to him is everything dark and fluid and secret, for him to steer and manipulate. And the same with psychic powers. Do you think he feels any real worship for María Leona? Or any respect for her cult and all the thousands of people who sincerely trust in her? Nonsense. He’s twisting all that psychic energy for his own ends, which are nothing but domination…”
There was a great deal more of this kind, with references to Hitler and his magicians, the return of Fascism, and an ongoing, intensifying confrontation in the world as a whole between the forces of good and evil. The poet’s words seemed to me to raise echoes of voices I had lately heard. I remembered the altar room at the pink villa and imagined whisperings rising from the red curtains and from around the stage where the Goddess stood, and the image persisted though I told myself my nerves were getting too taut and it was absurd.
Gabriel watched and listened intently, nodding his head from time to time, though not, I suspected, because he agreed with the poet’s ideas. When the poet was finally running out of steam, Simón managed to slip in a question: “OK, General Ribera is a bad guy – we can say he represents evil in this country at the moment. But who would you say represents good? Or ever represented good?”
The poet stared at him for a moment and said, “Good question.” He sighed and went on, “You didn’t need to hear all that, did you? You have practical worries.”
“It was interesting,” I said, not wanting him to become depressed, and because at any other time I would have been interested. “But I must say I can’t see the world in such stark black and white.”
“Most people can’t,” he said. “But evil exists.”
“Yes,” I said, “but it has a disconcerting habit of turning into something else if you look at it long enough.”
“We will talk about it,” he said, “when all this is over. You will come back, won’t you.”
“Goddess willing,” I said. “I’d love to.”
“Ah, your goddess,” he said, “that’s another discussion. More beer?”
“Thank you, Poet, but we should be moving on,” I said, considering for the first time the fact that I had no way to get back to Maggie’s house. Simón and Gabriel stood up.
“You know, I can tell you who to talk to if you want a clearer idea of what’s going on,” said the poet unexpectedly. “He’s a dangerous man, but he’ll be nice to innocents like you. Go and see him in my name – he was my friend once. He lives not too far from here.”
He explained to Simón where Nemesio Martínez lived. He had difficulty in standing up to see us out, but said goodbye very courteously.
“Will you be all right?” asked Simón.
“Of course I’ll be all right. I’ll have a sleep now.”
Daylight was starting to fade. “It’s a long way to walk,” said Simón at the street door. “Do you want to go and see this man?”
I decided to forget about where I was going to spend the night and discovered that part of me was actually enjoying our exploration.
“Yes,” said Gabriel, answering for me too. “It’s interesting. When will we get another chance to meet one of the heads of the drug trade in this country?”
“Is that what he is?” I asked.
“According to my informants, yes.” Gabriel laughed.
“But will we find out anything about Silvano?” asked Simón.
“Maybe not directly,” I said. “But it might give us some ideas. And what else can we do anyway?”
“What we ought to do is go to the temple in the centre of town. But it’s too far.”
“So come on,” said Gabriel, and we started walking uphill, away from the sounds of battle. Several times military patrols passed us, going in the opposite direction – the men stared at us but didn’t try to stop us.
“What if he’s not there?” I said, when we’d been walking fast for half an hour and were on a steep street with opulent houses on both sides.
They both grunted. “You’ll soon find out,” Simón added. “It should be in the next block.”
It was not difficult to recognize the house the poet had described. It was larger than its neighbours and painted yellow, and its grounds were more extensive, bounded by a high wall. Simón rang the bell at the door in the wall and a man’s voice answered on the intercom. “Friends of the poet Miranda for Nemesio Martínez,” said Simón.
After a moment’s silence we heard footsteps behind the door; then again silence while someone inspected us through the peephole. Finally the door opened and a man dressed in a silk suit stood there.
“Yes, it’s me,” he said as we stared at him. “I don’t trust anyone else to judge by appearances. You look safe enough. And if the Poet sent you…” He waved us inside and followed us up the path to the house. I got a glimpse of garages to the right and to the left a garden with many shrubs.
The light was even dimmer in his small entrance-hall than it was outside, but as we introduced ourselves I made out a white man in late middle age, fit and very sure of himself. There was nothing striking in his features or gestures, but he exuded personal power.
“So you want to know what’s going on in the country in case it will help you find a friend of yours, is that right?” he said, after Simón had rather awkwardly explained what we were there for (I didn’t blame him and felt a little ashamed at leaving it to him).
“That’s right,” said Simón.
“If we’re not disturbing you,” I added.
“Not at all,” said Martínez, gallantly. “Though it sounds to me like one of the Poet’s incoherent notions. Was he drunk?”
“He had been drinking,” said Simón.
“Well, come in anyway,” he said. “I can give you a little time.” And he opened the door out of the hall.
This was obviously the real entrance to the house, the cramped hall being for people waiting or unacceptable. The sitting-room inside was irregularly shaped and enormous, with windows at both ends and a parquet floor with fine rugs on it. The space was divided into several islands by comfortable modern divans and chairs grouped round glass-topped tables and by the structural pillars which were covered in climbing plants. There were several sculptures, including a large Botero woman, and a Picasso painting on the wall opposite us. In one of the islands, to our right, a group of men was sitting; their clothes were elegant but they were thugs.
“We’ll go to my private sitting-room,” said Martínez, leading the way across the room; he signalled “wait” at the men, who were looking at us questioningly over their drinks. “It’s a pity you didn’t come a bit earlier,” he said, as we stepped into the adjoining room. “It’s nice to see this in sunlight.”
The effect of the room with the remains of daylight outside was enough to make us stand still in astonishment. Its outside walls and the roof were of glowing multi-coloured glass; the top was pyramidal in shape and created a feeling both of ascension and oppression, a concentration of brooding power.
Martínez turned on the lights and the atmosphere changed. The colours (all the colours of the rainbow and some subtler ones besides) brightened and the strange glow was gone; the pyramid still seemed to be a mental presence.
Martínez was studying our reactions and looked satisfied as Gabriel started to walk slowly round the room with his head in the air, moving his hands in a kind of jerky dance. Simón looked stolid, as if he was resisting its effect.
I said, “This place should be a temple.”
Martínez laughed. “It’s just a pyramid,” he said. “Pyramids concentrate energy. Make it a mystery if you like.”
“It’s beautiful too.”
“It is. The Poet likes it. Please sit down.” He was addressing me; I could tell he’d come to the conclusion that I was the interested party and the men a kind of bodyguard.
There were some comfortable armchairs arranged under the centre of the pyramid; a writing desk with a computer stood against one solid wall. We sat down, except Gabriel, who continued to walk round us, measuring the structure with his eyes. I could tell he was listening, however.
When Martínez began to talk, the strange idea came to me that the pyramid was a kind of amplifier, and the thoughts he wanted to project would be sent out from it into unsuspecting minds within a large radius. Again I remembered the feeling I’d had several times lately of the almost tangible presence of alien thoughts. But I told myself it was nerves getting the better of me. What Martínez was saying was practical enough.
“You don’t need a lot of details. In brief, and as you know, the president was ousted by rebels who are now fighting a right-wing faction of the army for control of the country. What you probably don’t know is that the rebellion was actually planned and instigated by the right-wing generals as a first step toward taking over.”
I kept quiet; I didn’t want him to know I’d met Ribera. Simón looked shocked but said nothing.
“I expect the Poet is calling the struggle Armageddon,” Martínez went on, “but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a bunch of ingenuous fools against a madman. Nothing is working out as the right planned, first because the people have come out on the side of Gálvez, and second because they can’t stop fighting among themselves. At the moment the man in command is Saúl Ribera, who is certainly mad. And if he does succeed in taking over the country, he will have to be got rid of too. There are people ready to do that.”
His cynical attitude was chilling and the prospect of continuing strife depressing to say the least. He saw my glum reaction and said, “Don’t worry, it won’t take long. Besides, the rebels might win after all, and let us all get on with our lives.” I wondered what derisive judgment on the rebels was reflected in his last statement. Martínez went on to ask, “Is what I’ve said of any use to you?”
“It makes the situation clearer, yes,” I said carefully. “And it’s alarming in the sense that our friend has been in contact with Ribera. I hadn’t realized he was actually mad.”
“It might help if you could tell me what kind of contact,” Martínez said.
I wondered what he imagined. That I was the friend or mistress of some army officer or politician who had disappeared? I also wondered how he would react to mention of drugs; but I felt I needed to cut through the layers of a web of illusion that had descended on me with the simple truth.
“In reality what we’re afraid of is that he got mixed up in the drug trade with some of Ribera’s people.”
“If he did that he’s a very foolish person,” said Martínez, “but it would no doubt be at a low level and my contacts would know nothing about it.” He was as cool as ever, but no longer interested. Not because of the drug connection, I thought, but because the missing person must be someone of no importance and he felt he’d been misled into thinking he was. However, he asked politely enough, “What are you going to do next?”
“We want to talk to the Leonites,” I said. “Our friend goes to the mountain. But we’ve no way of getting to the temple.”
“Take one of my cars for the rest of the evening,” said Martínez, standing up. “The driver’s sitting idle. At least I can do that for you.”
After a surprised pause, we thanked him. He led us out by another door into a passage, which took us after several turns to the entrance to the garage. The house was in complete silence except for muffled noises from what would have been the kitchen. “Give my regards to the Poet,” he said as he shook hands with us.
“He’s an old friend of yours, he told us,” I said, curiosity getting the better of me.
“Since student days,” he said, with an almost genuine smile. “We had many arguments.” He instructed the driver sitting in the nearest car to take us where we wanted and left us.
“Well?” I whispered to Gabriel, as we moved round the car to get in.
“Lovely!” he whispered back. “If the Poet knows many people like that, I’m not surprised he believes in evil.”
“He must value the Poet’s friendship.” I said.
The presence of the driver made it too awkward to continue the conversation; he nodded when Simón told him where we were going – “the Leonite temple in the centre” – and we set out in silence through what to me was a maze of residential streets in that direction. Night had fallen. It was quiet in these parts; but when he started to descend we began to hear explosions and a line of tanks went across the road we were on some way ahead of us. Then an approaching jeep patrol stopped us, but the driver showed them a pass and they waved us on.
We stopped at the bottom of a flight of steps going up the hillside near the government palace. To my surprise Simón, who was sitting in front, asked the driver, “Are you coming up with us?”
“No, I can’t leave the car,” he said, apparently with regret. “I’ll wait for you here.”
“Do you know him?” I asked, as we started up the steps.
“No,” said Simón, “but I know the type. He’s scared, but he probably can’t get away. He’d like to go the goddess for protection.”
“Pray, pray hard!” said Gabriel, looking back.
Simón suddenly stopped climbing and said, “I just remembered. What was that you were saying about Silvano knowing Ribera’s daughter?”
“Diana,” I said. “She’s in the dance company in Mucutay – the leading lady in fact. Silvano was involved with her, though he didn’t even like her. She’s not likeable. I don’t know what that has to do with what happened to him.”
“Couldn’t it have been because of her he started going to the caves?” asked Simón.
“Maybe she said something about them that interested him, but he wouldn’t have gone to please her,” said Gabriel.
Simón glanced at me and said nothing more. As we went on up the steps I felt angry at myself for the dejection that had settled on me at the mention of Diana. It didn’t last long, however, because the temple distracted me.
It stood on a wide terrace cut into the hillside and was in fact an old arena for cock-fights. Drums and chanting sounded from all round. The main altar, on which a host of lesser figures, black, white and brown in the flickering candle-light, surrounded a tall María robed in red and gold, was in the pit, and many other altars, all with lighted candles dripping wax and throwing restless shadows, stood round the walls. At all the altars people were smoking divinatory cigars, making offerings and praying, to María, the caciques, the doctors, the African spirits, and the babble of voices, reciting, imploring and chattering as well, was as loud as the drums.
Simón found us places to sit on one of the circular wooden benches and told Gabriel and me to wait. We watched him moving around talking to people. A young woman with a lame leg and a prematurely lined face came past and greeted Gabriel unsmilingly.
“That was Antonia,” he said, as she moved away. “She was Silvano’s girlfriend long ago.”
“Oh yes, he told me the story once,” I said. “She looks as if she never recovered.”
“I don’t think she did. What was Silvano’s fatal attraction for women? Or maybe it wasn’t the same for her as for you.”
“I’m sure our expectations of him were different,” I said, “but what we saw was probably the same. He was beautiful. And sexy. And he had something appealingly childlike that he exploited shamelessly. And beyond all that he was some kind of stand-in for a god.”
“Wow!” said Gabriel, with a grin that I returned. “And what about this Diana. Did she see all that too?”
“I think she did,” I said, realizing that it was so. “And she couldn’t stand it – she didn’t know what to do with it.”
Simón returned with a youngish, thickset woman with short black hair.
“This is Julia,” he said. “She’s a banco. She knows something about the caves.”
“Yes,” she said, with a sudden lovely smile, “I broke off with my boyfriend because he started going there, but I know what he told me before that.”
“He preferred the caves to you?” I asked, in a tone that said he must be mad, and she smiled again.
“I don’t think he did really,” she said. “He was scared. They threaten the ones who try to break away.”
“But why? What hold do they have over them?”
“They catch them by telling them they’re going to belong to an élite brotherhood. But they have real secrets too.”
“To do with drugs?” I asked.
“Yes. Joaquín told me there’s a big store in one of the caves.”
“I see. But it’s not really such a secret, is it? I mean you know and probably a lot of other people here know. Why should Silvano die for knowing?”
“Silvano is dead?” she asked, shocked, and I realized I’d said more than I should.
“We suspect he is,” said Simón. “But keep it to yourself. If you hear anything that might help, try to let me know.”
“I will,” said Julia, “but it’s unlikely. This caves cult has split our centre in two. The general’s people don’t come here any more.”
“I know,” said Simón. “It’s sad.”
I looked round as we got up to leave. The noise of voices chattering and chanting was still loud in the heat of the night, and the flickering candles threw strange shadows on bare arms and torsos and sweating, intent faces. There was a strong smell of flowers, liquor, burning tobacco and incense. The tall figure of María on the main altar continued to smile sweetly and serenely. Beneath the confusion of the scene lay a common faith and solidarity that was comforting. But the answer to my quest was not there.
“No one could tell me anything more specific,” said Simón, as we descended the steps through the barrio.
“No,” I said. “The people who know what happened to Silvano are probably in Mucutay. I’ll have to try to get back there.”
“So has this been a wasted day?” asked Gabriel.
I stopped short. “It has not,” I said. “It’ll take me years to digest everything I’ve learnt this afternoon and evening. And I’m very grateful to you – to both of you – for being with me.”
We drove in silence again. Gabriel and Simón insisted on staying in the car with me all the way to Maggie’s building and keeping the driver waiting till I waved to them from the window of her flat. I felt unexpectedly desolate as the car disappeared into the night.
It should have been over by now, the battle. No rest for the wicked they say. No rest for heroes. No rest for one who is both and neither and more than either can imagine. A lot of little people are behaving well, but that’s an irrelevancy. And they don’t know me yet. The ones I counted on to carry me to power have no vision. They’re all trying to put themselves in my place as leader and I have to engage in wasteful contests with them. All they want is to suppress opposition and start sacking the country. They don’t see what I see, a people united under a benevolent power, obedience and order and a return to the land in the name of its gods, nature responding with harvests from the rich soil on her skin and her veins underground. I’m having to use more force than I wanted.
Diana solved my next problem, in the morning, by calling to say she had decided she really must get back to Mucutay and if I liked I could get a lift with her in a friend’s plane. I readily agreed. Though I knew the pink villa held answers, I had no access to them, and the circuit of the day before had exhausted other possibilities. The fighting, besides, was getting heavier, and I was afraid I would be trapped where I was. I knew Diana wanted me away from Caracas and where she could keep an eye on me; but, though I hadn’t said so to my allies Gabriel and Simón, she was the person that I also most wanted to watch. I knew I could believe nothing she told me. I knew also that she would be capable of doing anything at all to help her father and their interests. I still didn’t know clearly what those interests were, and many of her reactions baffled me; but I was beginning to sense the outline of a kind of ghastly logic in her actions.
Salvador stumbled sleepily out of his room as I was leaving, and when I asked him what he’d been doing to be so exhausted he said, “Playing computer games with my friend José Luis upstairs.”
“War games, no doubt,” I said.
“Isn’t what’s going on outside enough for you?”
“I haven’t seen anything exciting.”
I laughed. “Well I hope you don’t. Give my love to your mother.”
“OK. Are you coming back soon?”
Diana was wearing the red and bronze outfit again. All her shining arrogance had returned and she treated me again as an unworthy rival – or perhaps just a boring acquaintance. On the drive down to the airport, she asked me what I’d done the previous afternoon (her driver had evidently reported on where I’d gone), and I told her a friend had taken me to meet Nemesio Martínez.
“Oh, that bastard,” she said indifferently.
She didn’t want to talk any more and left me to sit alone at the back of the small plane, which was a relief. She herself chatted with brittle animation with a middle-aged officer and his wife. At Mucutay I thanked her briefly and walked home through streets piled and stinking with uncollected rubbish.
Rosario and Josefina were relieved to see me back – they had thought it might be weeks before they had any news of me. I gave them a brief account of my discoveries, leaving out Diana’s relationship to her father; I didn’t feel like discussing it. Rosario, who would normally have interrogated me about the pink villa and about Diana until there was nothing left to tell, was withdrawn. I asked for their news. They hadn’t left the house, except to go to the market; the market building was shut but produce was arriving at the parking lot. The outskirts of town, they said, were mostly quiet, but the centre was a battlefield.
“How long can it go on like this?” said Josefina. “People aren’t going to work. No one will have any money.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Perhaps more people will join Gálvez’s side and the rightists will be defeated.”
Rosario suddenly said, “I want to go and join them. Germán came last night and told me where to go. He’s with them.” Germán was her boyfriend.
“You didn’t tell me,” said Josefina.
“You didn’t wake up and I didn’t want to worry you. But now that Helena’s back…”
Josefina sighed, looking old. “Well if you really want to go you must go,” she said.
“I’ll go this evening. Half my friends are with them.”
The phones had been connected again by whoever was controlling them, and I called Julio’s house but he wasn’t in. I rang a few other friends to see how they were bearing up under the crisis, but I told none of them about Silvano and my search. After we’d had lunch, Julio was still not at home and I went for a walk in the park, leaving Rosario and her mother to talk out Rosario’s decision to join the rebels. There was no one in the Sun rotunda at that hour and I sat down there to think quietly.
The first strong image that presented itself was Diana in all her flame and metallic finery with a taunting smile on her lips.
Damn her! No woman should have to contend with such a rival. It’s absolutely unfair. If I let go of my anger for a moment I feel like grovelling in the dust and crying. I’m going to cry… No, Grandma, I’m not going to cry. You’ve been threatening to take the upper hand too often lately. You make me feeble. So what if Silvano was fucking Diana too? How many hundreds of other women did he fuck. Silvano was my lover, our love was real. My body still knows it, and the fire in me that welded the spoilt, unscrupulous young man to the god he embodied. For that vision to stay alive it must expand with every new horrid fact I find out about him. No one can take it from me but myself.
I was crying after all, but not from helplessness, from release. I sat for a little longer, aware that a weight had been taken off me, and that I would be able to see that much more clearly in further encounters with Diana. Then I walked home slowly. Josefina and Rosario were still talking in the kitchen. I went into the garden and picked a red rose and laid it at the dark dancer’s feet. I lit a candle to him, too, and joined my hands in prayer, and consigned first Silvano in his death and then my own heart to the vortex of the timeless dance where pain and decay are transformed into new life.
The phone rang. It was Julio.
“So you’re back,” he said.
“Yes. How can we meet?”
“Come on down. No one will stop you. And I’ve got some petrol for you.”
“I’m on my way.”
Bald Master’s house was full of people. Julio and I sat on a bench on the grass verge at the entrance to the barrio and I told him about my excursions with Diana. He stared as I described the luxurious temple in the pink villa and the devotees there; he had heard stories about such places but not known whether to believe them. Again I left out of my account Diana’s relationship to her father, though I did say, “I think Diana may be mad.”
“Mad and a monster,” said Julio. He looked upset.
“I’m afraid so. Did Silvano not tell you she was a Leonite?”
“No. Maybe he didn’t know.”
“That seems unlikely. And everything we’ve found out seems connected somehow through the caves.” I repeated what Julia had told me.
“Mmm. There’s still nothing to tell us why anyone would kill him.”
“Nothing definite,” I agreed. “But those people at the villa would act for strange reasons.”
“I don’t like the sound of them,” said Julio. “El Gato and that lot are bad, but I can understand them.”
I asked, “So what’s been going on here?”
“Miguelito’s gang has broken up. Fredy told me they fought over money. Yovany has disappeared – no one knows where he is. El Gato and Pedro are still speaking, because Fredy saw them drinking together in El Gato’s house last night.”
“Where is Miguelito?”
“Here in Mucutay. He’ll probably be at the temple this evening. Maybe we should go and listen to what he’s saying.”
“OK. Next step.”
We went back to Julio’s house and he told Agueda to serve me coffee. She looked as resentful as ever, but since I was sure Julio wouldn’t have told her anything about our quest I was not surprised. I was too preoccupied to try to talk to her; it would have been difficult anyway with Mateo and Conchita, bored without school and with nowhere to go, demanding attention all the time. We all watched television (the soap operas had found their way back to the screen and in spite of their awfulness were distracting) until Julio said it was time for the evening meeting at the centre.
Julio poured into the tank of my jeep the petrol he had got from a cousin in the army. The cousin, he told me, had been on the government side at the beginning of the crisis, but had now joined Gálvez’s people against the rightists. Many soldiers were doing the same.
“Rosario’s going to join them,” I said.
“I’d go too if we didn’t have this murder on our hands,” said Julio.
I told him what the general had said about Gálvez and his rebellion.
“He’s mad too,” Julio snorted. “Even if he did help start it, it’s out of his control now. The people want Gálvez.”
The María Leona centre in Mucutay is a one-storey breeze-block house in the last street of the barrio behind the airport, with a patch of wasteland behind it on to which overcharged people, the remains of offerings and occasionally a collective rite can overflow. No one protests; all the neighbours are devotees. The contrast with Diana’s temple struck me again as I went inside. The big main room had no windows and the light was dim. Candles brightened the cheap, green-robed statue of gently smiling María. The place smelt of cigars, perfume and stale rum. The devotees were sitting on the benches round the walls and chatting. They looked poor.
Our entry caused a stir. Several friends got up to greet Julio and all the women stared at me, or so I felt. Luisa was sitting with a little group of women and she turned her back on us.
Someone asked loudly from across the room, “Is it true Silvano is dead?”
“He’s missing,” said Julio.
“And you haven’t had any news of him?” someone else insisted.
“No. But you know what he’s like. He may turn up any day.”
“Yes, he’s a great deceiver,” a woman’s voice said, and there were sniggers.
At that moment Gloria, the priestess, came in from her room at the back and the hall quietened. People gathered round the altar, at a respectful distance. Gloria stood for a minute with her head bowed and her hands at her sides in front of the altar; then she slowly raised her head, moved her lips in a silent conversation with María and the caciques who stood on either side of her, and turned round.
“Who wants to come up?” she asked.
An obese woman encased in red elastic pants and carrying a fat, pouting child made her way to the front of the crowd, followed by a nervous, dark-skinned girl and a thin, grey man. Gloria studied them.
“All right,” she said, lit a cigar and closed her eyes.
I sat down on a bench at the side and watched as she puffed, stamped and shook herself into a trance. I suspected it was faked; she could hardly go into a real trance every day. She, or the spirit who possessed her, gave sensible advice on diet to the fat woman, told the girl she was trusting someone who would harm her, and was turning her attention to the grey man when a very short, tough young man strode into the hall and pushed his way through the devotees to stand in front of her.
“That’s Miguelito,” whispered Julio, who was standing beside me.
Miguelito had blunt features, a scar across his jaw, and rough hands too big for him. His euphoria was unnatural. He said, “It’s me you’re going to read now, medium.”
“Wait your turn,” said Fredy, who had moved towards him.
“I will not wait. I don’t wait for anyone. People who don’t understand that pay for it.”
“What have you done with Yovany?” someone shouted.
“What have I done with him? He’s a fool! I don’t need fools. I do fine on my own. I’m going to triumph. Come on, medium, tell me about my triumphs.”
Fredy looked at Gloria and stepped back. Gloria had lit another cigar and was swaying gently on her feet, and this time I thought she had withdrawn behind normal awareness. She touched Miguelito’s face briefly with her fingers and looked at the cigar in her other hand.
It was burning evenly, and she nodded at Miguelito and said, “There is success here. A lot of money too.”
Miguelito was preening himself ridiculously. I caught sight of Luisa across the room; she was staring at him with desperate adoration, willing him, I could see, to turn to her, but he was ogling a group of younger girls sitting near me.
Suddenly the cigar started to sputter. “Problems,” said Gloria laconically, and Miguelito glared. Gloria took another puff, and the cigar burnt a long way up one side and sparks flew out. Gloria had shut her eyes.
“Now what?” said Miguelito aggressively.
Gloria held the cigar at arm’s length and it sizzled and popped and flew apart. She went green and staggered through into her own room. Everyone in the temple started muttering.
Miguelito went to the curtained doorway shouting, “What does it mean? You have to tell me what it means.” There was no answer and he would have gone through, but Fredy and another banco took hold of his arms and wrestled him away. He looked round the hall, his eyes swollen with fury and alarm, and ran outside as they released him, with people backing out of his way.
The session broke up. Gloria stayed in her room; the bancos went in to see her and reported she had been sick but would be all right. Most of the devotees, however, stayed in the temple discussing Miguelito and the burst cigar. I left it to Julio to join in their conversations and see if he could pick up any useful news, and went on sitting quietly on my bench. I realized, as I caught the looks of other women in the room, that many people here knew, or thought they knew, far more about me than I knew about them. With a few exceptions I didn’t even know their names. Did they all know me as Silvano’s lover? Resent me for it? Find it ridiculous?
Luisa had slunk out after Miguelito, but the group of women she had been sitting with were staring at me with particular intensity. One of them was a very young and very pretty dark girl holding a baby; in response to prodding from the others she finally walked across the room to me.
“Hullo,” I said when she was standing in front of me, half shy and half defiant.
“What’s your name,” I asked.
“Why don’t you sit down, Chía?”
She sat down beside me, and after a further moment’s hesitation burst out without looking at me, “You haven’t met Silvano’s son, have you?”
My heart did a somersault, but my main feeling, immediately, was recognition, as if I recalled something that had been hovering on the edge of memory, or found the missing piece of a puzzle.
I showed no surprise. I looked at the baby Chía was holding up for me to see, and his likeness to his father was evident.
“No I hadn’t,” I said to Chía, “but I like him very much.”
The baby smiled at me.
“How old is he?” I asked.
Conceived and born while I was supposed to be the queen of Silvano’s life. But probably Chía had more reason to resent me than the other way round. She wasn’t looking resentful now, or disappointed because I wasn’t shocked. She looked pleased.
“He’s big for a year,” I said.
“He’s going to be tall, like his papa.”
He is his papa, I was thinking, and I was surprised at the joy I felt. The part of me that had loved Silvano as a son, the son I never had, was relieved at the solid, smiling reality of this little boy who was his continuation.
Julio was signing to me that we should go. I thought his expression was a bit guilty.
“I’m sorry Chía,” I said. “I have to go now. You must bring him to visit me when this crisis is over.”
“Yes Helena,” she said. And went on, in a rush, “You don’t know what’s happened to Silvano, do you?”
“No,” I said, “but I’m trying to find out. I’ll let you know.”
Julio was silent as we walked down the street to the jeep.
“So now I know,” I said calmly after a moment, “why Silvano never wanted me to come to the temple.”
“She wasn’t important,” said Julio. “She’s just a kid.”
“She’s the mother of his child,” I said sharply. I was as near as I can get to being angry with Julio, not because he hadn’t told me about Chía (no one should be expected to tell tales on a friend), but because of his casual machismo.
“It seems so,” he said, accepting the rebuke meekly.
“What do you mean ‘seems so’? Have you had a good look at the baby? It’s exactly like him.”
“If you say so.”
“Did he ever live with her?” I asked. “Were they still lovers? Did the Leonites think of him as her man?”
“He slept with her on and off,” said Julio, “but nobody thought of them as a couple. They all knew about you, for one thing.”
“What did they know about me?”
“That he was proud you were his woman.”
I sighed loudly and opened the door of the jeep. Julio took out his bicycle and I said, “By the way, did you get any clues?”
“You’d better go home before it gets any later,” he said. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“But there’s no one to enforce the curfew any more.”
“Curfew or no curfew, it’s not safe to be out in the streets.”
The streets were deserted; people felt, no doubt, more secure in their homes. Germán, black and reassuring, was at the house and they were just finishing supper. Josefina insisted on heating mine. I wondered whether to mention meeting Silvano’s child, but decided I could do without Rosario’s horrified sympathy. I felt strangely happy, and hungry, and anyway this family had their own worries.
“You see, her mind was made up already,” said Josefina, pointing her chin at Rosario. “Germán has come to fetch her.”
“Will you be in Mucutay?” I asked.
“Not far away,” said Germán. “We’ll get messages to you, don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry, he says!” said Josefina, but she was resigned now, and proud of them.
Rosario hugged me tight when they left. “You’re going to find him,” she said. “I know you are.”
“And you’ll win the war for us in the meantime.”
“Of course,” said Rosario and Germán echoed her.
“Goddess bless!” Josefina and I said as they went out.
I lay in bed for a while in the morning after I woke, with my mind drifting over pictures of the last few days’ events. I was enough in control to steer clear of the most distressing points, the jagged rocks in a stormy sea, and I remained calm. The biggest pain, Silvano’s death, was constantly present, like a worsening of the climate or a decrease in eye-sight, something I was just going to have to get used to.
I went to market with Josefina, who was sad at Rosario’s absence, and then I drove down to the barrio. Julio had gone out. I went to Bald Master’s house.
Bald Master was not alone. He smiled at me apologetically and waved to me to sit down, so I joined the semicircle of disciples round his altar. Bald Master was sitting cross-legged in slightly dirty white Indian pyjamas; his eyes were puffy again and he was breathless. He was speaking more emphatically, even angrily, than I had ever heard him.
“What are we here for if not to meet the lords of our destiny, far down inside us, that speak to us from the source of our light?”
A sharp-faced young man standing on the other side of the room from me interrupted quite rudely, “But surely our light comes from above, metaphorically speaking. Why do you speak as though it comes from the earth. We don’t belong to the earth.”
“Oh, but we do,” said Bald Master. “The air that moves the trees is in our lungs, and our blood flows like the streams, and the heat of the sun is in our bellies and our groins, and our hands and feet, our shoulders and thighs and nails and hair, are made of the same minerals and the same clay as earth is. And the light comes from inside.”
“Then if we are so perfect, why do we die? Why are you so sick when you’re not even old? Shouldn’t a holy man be able to stay alive for centuries?”
Several of the audience turned to scold the young man. I got up with the idea of leaving Bald Master to the mercy of his disciples, but he said “Wait Helena, I have something to say to you,” and signed to me to go with him to his front room. Argument broke out behind us as we went.
He sat down on his bed and rubbed his face with his hands. Then he said, “How are you? I don’t really have anything special to say to you, but I wanted to get out of there for a moment.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said. “That was a mean blow.”
“Not really,” he said. “They expect so much of me. And I’ve asked for it.”
I smiled. “But even so…”
“Even so,” he agreed, “they’re a disappointing lot. They all think the spirit is outside this world, though I keep trying to tell them it’s right here.” No foreign accent was in evidence as he said this.
“I suppose you’ve had our latest news from Julio,” I said.
“So you see we know quite a lot. And I’m all right,” I said.
“And what is happening to your love?”
“You’re a strong woman,” he said, getting up.
I kissed him quickly on the cheek and left him.
Julio was still not at home. I told Agueda I would wait for him. She wasn’t pleased, but when I remarked that I didn’t know how Bald Master kept his patience with his disciples, she became more communicative.
“I went shopping for him the day before yesterday,” she said, “and when I came back they all came poking at the bags and saying what I’d brought wasn’t good for him. I know what he likes to eat.”
“What is he eating?”
“Hamburgers with ketchup mostly. And potatoes. And bread.”
I laughed. “I don’t suppose it is the best diet,” I said. “But I’m afraid it won’t make much difference now. He may as well enjoy eating while he can.”
“That’s what I say,” she said, and offered me a cup of coffee. We discussed Bald Master’s symptoms, I realized that Agueda cared for him deeply, and by the time Julio arrived I had been invited to lunch.
“Where have you been?” asked Agueda, crossly.
“Talking to some people.” Julio glanced at me.
“Haven’t you told Agueda anything yet?” I asked.
“He never tells me anything,” said Agueda.
Julio looked at me again; then he said, deliberately, “We’ve found out that Silvano was murdered and we’re trying to find out who did it.”
Agueda was horrified. She sat down, looking from one to the other of us with tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she said slowly. “I’m so sorry.”
“You mustn’t tell anyone,” said Julio.
“Of course not,” she said.
The children came in and Agueda got up again to serve us black beans and plantains.
When we had finished eating and the children had returned to their games in the street, Agueda asked, “Who do you think killed him?”
“If it wasn’t Miguelito, he knows who did it,” said Julio. “I’ve been talking to people who used to be his friends,” he turned to me. “They say he’s gone mad. They’re sure he’s killed Yovany, but they can’t find his body either.”
“But why?” asked Agueda.
“Drug money. And whatever’s going on in the caves at the Mountain. It looks like I should go back there.”
“Did you talk to Gloria?” I asked.
“No. She was still sick. Maybe you should see her – she can be more helpful to women.”
“Will there be a meeting this evening?”
“Fredy says not.”
“Then I’ll go a bit later,” I said. “We need to talk.”
We spent most of the afternoon talking over everything we knew, which filled Agueda in too, and toward sundown I returned to the temple. María’s robe was pink today, and her face strangely lit by the lone candle at her feet. The other figures were shadows in the dusk. The atmosphere was kind, in spite of what I had seen happen there the day before.
I called “Gloria!” and she came from behind her curtain, peering to see who it was.
“It’s Helena,” I said. “Can you talk to me?”
“Come in. I told them I wouldn’t see anyone else today. I knew you’d come.”
“But are you feeling all right?”
“I’m all right.”
In her small room was a cot, busts of María and St.Doctor on a shelf and two metal chairs, on one of which was a single candle and a book on its face: Prayers to St. Chimney.
“I was reading,” she said, seeing me notice the book.
“You’ll hurt your eyes in this light,” I said.
“I don’t have to see the words. I know them by heart. Sit down.”
I sat on the empty chair and she put the book and candle on the shelf and sat on the other.
After a silence she said, “You want to know what I saw in Miguelito’s cigar.”
She looked hard at me. Then she got up and fetched a cigar and matches from the shelf at the statues’ feet. She sat down again and lit it, dragging on it slowly with her eyes shut. Suddenly she spat on the floor and exclaimed loudly, “The shameless bastard!”
I was startled. “You mean Miguelito?” I asked.
“Who else. He’d murder his own mother, that one.”
“Has he murdered someone?”
She was looking at me again now. “More than one. But he’ll pay. He doesn’t have much time left.”
I hesitated to go on to the next question, but Gloria commanded, “Ask!”
“Did he kill Silvano?”
She shut her eyes again and puffed at the cigar. Then she studied the ashes with a frown of concentration.
“I can’t see,” she said. “I thought with you in front of me I might be able to see, but it’s not clear. He killed Yovany, though they haven’t found him yet – that’s simple. And another fellow, for the drug money.”
“Yes?” I prompted.
“He knows about Silvano’s death,” she went on. “But I can’t see if he killed him. It’s more complicated…”
I said nothing and she dragged on the cigar again.
“Ah!” she said. “There’s someone with a lot of power that’s stopping me seeing. A bad power.”
“What kind of person?”
“I don’t know. A woman I think. But too strong for me.” She put down the cigar, exhausted suddenly. “Now I know why I was sick last night,” she said.
“Then don’t go on. You’ve said enough.”
“You must be careful too,” she said. “If you get close to this person you will be in danger. Come, I’ll put a protection on you.”
We stood in front of the statue of María Leona in the main room and she sprinkled perfume on my head and made me turn round on myself slowly while she recited a prayer:
“Two I see you, three I tie you, your blood I drink and your heart I break … Hidden enemy, you are overcome by the power of St.John, overcome by the sword of the Archangel Michael, tormented by the Lonely Soul, and your thoughts cannot reach me…”
“There, you’ll be safer now,” she said. “But remember you’re dealing with bad people.”
“Thank you, you’ve been very kind.”
“I hope you’ll find him,” she said. “Silvano was like a son to me.”
Julio with his bicycle was waiting beside my jeep out in the street.
“Did she help?” he asked.
“She wanted to. But she said someone very powerful is blocking her so she can’t see what happened to Silvano.”
“What did she say about Miguelito?”
“That he killed Yovany and someone else and he’s going to come to a bad end soon.”
“I’ve been thinking,” said Julio, “that El Gato and Pedro must be very scared now. It could be worth trying to talk to them.”
“It could. Let’s go.”
“I meant me,” he said. “You go home. It might not be safe and it’s nearly dark.”
“I’m not afraid. I’m going with you.”
Julio chained his bicycle to a lamp post. We walked a few blocks inside the barrio.
“There’s someone there,” he said, pointing to a lighted window on the ground floor ahead of us.
“Let’s see who it is before we let them know we’re here,” I said.
We crossed to the shadows on the other side of the narrow street – most of the houses were shuttered and dark. As we came opposite El Gato’s house we simultaneously held our hands out to each other for support. The scene inside was uncanny.
The room beyond the barred and glassless window was a drab, almost empty shed. In the middle of it, El Gato and Pedro (I’d seen him before at the temple, so fair as to be almost albino) were sitting at either end of a battered metal table with a host of empty beer bottles between them. El Gato had his head half buried in his arms on the table, and Pedro was slumped in his chair, but even in these slovenly attitudes they were visibly paralyzed with fright and misery. Between them, behind the table, stood Diana, dressed all in black, with shiny black ornaments in her hair, and towering with rage. She was speaking to them in a voice too low for us to hear, but from the way she was slinging words at them, marking them with movements of her closed fists, she had to be swearing at them.
“Look at me!” she shouted suddenly, jabbing her long nails at them.
They both sat up straight and turned their heads toward her. She continued her low-voiced, machine-like spewing insults or curses, her gestures becoming jerky.
“She’s going into trance!” Julio whispered.
She wasn’t looking at the men now, but straight ahead of her, in our direction. Her face was very pale in the dim neon glow and her contorted lips garish red. We knew she couldn’t see us, but we felt exposed standing there and slipped out of sight of the window.
“It doesn’t look like a good time to call,” whispered Julio, with a nervous smile.
“No. But I almost feel sorry for those men, as if we should do something to save them from her.”
“They deserve each other,” said Julio.
“So they are connected. What shall we do? Watch what happens? Wait till she comes out?”
“I’ll wait,” said Julio. “You go home.”
“The two of us are too noticeable. And I know my way round here.”
“And it’ll be better if she doesn’t see me here”, I said, giving in. “I’ll try to talk to her tomorrow.”
I went home.
Sunday. Does anyone remember it’s Sunday? Yes, probably – some devoted priest has managed to keep his church open and people are praying for peace. Peace at any price – no more shooting in the streets, no more violence, no conflict. But Sunday’s a good day for dreams and visions. Think of the light again, creeping in from the sea, and in the light, which turns a reddish gold as it flows over the land, an army – wave upon wave of tall, sturdy, bronze-bodied men, almost naked, with long, black, plaited hair and carrying swords and shields. The enemy gathers in pockets to face them as they run forward – legions of jangling white metallic creatures, whose clockwork mechanisms whir to a stop as they are knocked down. On they go and on, and people rush out to bow to them as they pass, to offer them water and liquor and to throw flowers. At last they come to a great open plain and converge on the centre of enemy power – a round white bunker-like object, of some unknown material, hermetically sealed all over its surface. The warrior chief, who is taller and finer-built than the rest and wears a pectoral of feathers and precious stones, approaches the bunker and removes his helmet and mask. His black eyes blaze with godly power and the bunker begins to glow and shudder under his gaze… Well, obviously, it blows up and that’s the end of the enemy and he becomes king. If only it were so simple. But there is truth in dreams like that. If we can’t dream we forget why we’re fighting and the tide of our power recedes.
When I woke next morning I was unable to emerge from the poignant but startling atmosphere of a dream.
I am in the mountains, with Silvano. They are not the Mucutay mountains, though there is a mysterious still lake at the end of the valley and high crags around us; we are surrounded by wild rose bushes and meadowsweet, and delicate flowers – daisies, forget-me-nots, dwarf snapdragons – grow in the rich grass. The imprint of our bodies is in the grass too; we have spent hours making love, and we are taking leave of each other now in a slow ritual dance. We circle round each other, our hands and eyes meeting at ordained intervals. My absorption in him is complete. He is so beautiful with the pure highland sunlight streaming over his head and shoulders and marking the lights and shades of his long, sweet limbs as he moves, that I am his servant, his worshipper and my whole life is blessed by this passing moment.
Suddenly a cloud covers the sun and a scarf of fog is thrown round the mountain tops. A deep-throated barking is heard, coming closer. We have stopped dancing. The pack of dogs, black and white hounds with red tongues hanging out, rushes toward us from among the trees and chases Silvano down the valley toward the lake.
I lose sight of them. I sit on the ground and say to myself, in the dream, “How strange, dogs have always been my friends.” And an old dog, too decrepit to keep up with the pack, comes limping up after them and sits down beside me with his head on my foot.
“So the dogs were mine?” I kept thinking after I woke up. I couldn’t make sense of this idea, and finally forced myself to get up and wash the dream away under the shower.
When I entered the dance theatre a rehearsal was going on. Martín, sitting in the front row, turned and smiled at me contentedly as I came up. I sat down near him. Diana was on stage, supported in an impetuous, exuberant dance by Horacio and Jaime. She had no make-up on and was wearing a blue body-stocking; and she looked young and innocent. The music was stirring, a mixture I didn’t recognize of Latin rhythms and complex sound, and for a while I almost forgot who she was in admiration of her agility and grace.
The music finished and Martín called, “OK, have a rest.”
Diana came down from the stage and greeted me as if I was a close friend. She said “It’s wonderful to dance again,” and she looked really relieved and lightened. Then she became aware, as I did, of the whole company watching us, and the theatrical veil formed over her features. I realized that the lack of make-up and the loose hair were part of her disguise for the day. There was a silver star missing from the pattern on her wide blue velvet headband – a careless and pathetic touch. She was the worried lover, possibly bereaved, being brave; and her friendliness to me was generosity to a rival in the same distress.
I understood that for me too it was the best way to play the situation, so we looked sympathetically at each other as Horacio asked, with mock candour, “Helena, have you not found any trace of Silvano either?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “As I expect you know, Diana and I were making enquiries together in Caracas.”
“I have something to tell you,” said Diana. “Let’s go outside for a moment.”
Looks of sentimental concern followed us out. Only Laura raised a cynical eyebrow, to which I responded, since I had my back to the rest, with a rapid wink.
Out in the courtyard Diana sat on a low wall and gestured to me to do the same. I obeyed.
“I rang Mimi last night,” she said. “Lucindo has been in touch with the people at the caves and he found out that Silvano was there on Wednesday night.”
I was immediately sure that it was a lie, and she knew it was, but there was no point in not going along with it.
“Then that takes us a bit further,” I said. “The latest we’d heard of him before that was Tuesday night.”
“Right,” she said, apparently convinced I was taken in. Was I a better actress than she was or did she think I was stupid? “But we don’t know where he went from there.”
“Did Lucindo say what he was doing there?”
“Taking part in a rite.”
“What kind of rite?”
“I don’t know what goes on there. It’s only for men.”
Oh yes – I thought – you know all right. And you’d like me to know you have privileged knowledge, but you can’t say so directly.
“Was he with anyone in particular?” I asked.
“Some men from the Mucutay centre. Marginal types.”
“Do you know who they are?”
“How should I know people like that?”
“One meets all kinds of people among the Leonites.”
“But I belong to the cult at a higher level. You saw our temple.”
Yes – I thought – the temple of lies. But there was no point in attacking Diana; she would only make sure doors were shut to me. Partly to learn more about my opponent and partly out of plain curiosity I asked, “What is your position in the cult?”
“I’m a priestess when I have time, which isn’t often. We perform beautiful rites. You must come again some time.”
“It would be interesting,” I said. “Are you a medium?”
For the second time I had asked her a question that upset her badly. The conflict in her face was dramatic. She stood up and did a few dance steps ending in a leap, as if to recover the freshness of her dancing self. When she sat down again she looked young and hurt, and I had no doubt the pain was real. Pain and fear.
“I’ve been told I have medium’s gifts,” she said, “but I don’t want to develop them. People who become mediums are not much good for anything else.”
“Then you’ve never been in trance?”
“No. Sometimes I’ve felt it coming on but I’ve always stopped it.”
She was lying again, I knew, but this time the lie was not intended only to deceive me and I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for her need to tell it.
“I’m sure you’re wise,” I said, and we stood up.
“What will you do next?” she asked.
“Try to find out who the marginal types were.”
“I’ll let you know if Lucindo finds out anything else,” she said as she went back inside, waving airily.
I went home to call Julio rather than risk a fruitless journey to the barrio. The petrol in the jeep was getting low again and the tension in the town seemed to be increasing. There were very few people on the streets and I could hear explosions from the centre.
“I’ll ride up,” said Julio. “I’ve had a message to go to a place in your direction.”
“A message from who?”
“They wouldn’t say. Someone just rang up and said we – you and me – would be interested in something we’d find at this address.”
“Come on then. Oh, what happened last night?”
“I’ll tell you,” said Julio and rang off.
“So what happened last night?” I asked again when he had arrived and was sitting in the kitchen with a can of beer. He had pedalled fast.
He looked annoyed with himself. “I don’t know that barrio as well as I thought,” he said. “I didn’t see her leave.”
“Who?” asked Josefina, joining us in the kitchen.
“Diana,” said Julio. “I waited a while and then I went and looked in the window again and there was no one there. So I went to the street behind and found there’s an alley that goes past the yard of El Gato’s house. I thought there were houses all round.”
“And Diana would be able to get over the wall?” asked Josefina.
“Easily,” I said. “And what about Pedro and El Gato?”
“I knocked on the door but no one answered. I decided go back early this morning and talk to them when they’d calmed down, but they’d gone. Some neighbours saw them running off at dawn.”
“Where can they run to?” asked Josefina.
“Goddess knows. They’ll have somewhere to hide.”
“Pity,” I said. “It might have been useful to hear what they had to say.” I reported my conversation with Diana.
“You have no doubt it was a lie about Wednesday?” Julio asked me.
“None at all. Diana’s more transparent than she knows. Or maybe she’s not trying her hardest to mislead me. Shouldn’t we be getting to this address you were given?”
“I should but I don’t know whether I should take you with me. I have a bad feeling about it.”
“What’s the address?” asked Josefina.
“Block 24, Green Cross.”
“It sounds like the old water-works.”
“So it does,” said Julio. “It’s probably a trap.”
“Come on,” I said. “We won’t find out by sitting here. And stop trying to protect me,” I said, as Julio still hesitated. He raised his eyebrows at Josefina and stood up.
“He has to try, at least,” she said.
We took the jeep. The address was the old water-works, on its own big lot at the bottom of a street that slopes through a barrio toward the river. The outside was painted green from time to time so that it wouldn’t be an eyesore while the city council decided what to do with it (in this town it rates as an antiquity, and is supposed to be haunted), but inside, as we could see through the dirty windows, it was a ruin. The floor of the upper storey had fallen in and there seemed to be nothing on the ground floor but heaps of rusty metal and boards covered in grey grime.
The front door was locked and we followed a path trodden in high weeds to the back of the building. There, a broken pane showed how to get a hand through and open one of the swinging windows. We climbed through quickly and stood among the lumber, listening. We could feel the vibration of a truck crossing the nearby bridge but inside the building there was only stillness. I felt afraid, but not because I sensed live, hostile presences; it was the squalor and hollowness of the place. Then I began to hear, very faintly, the sound of running water.
“There must be a basement,” I said in a hushed voice.
The head of the concrete stairs was masked by rubble, but we followed footprints in the dust and found it quickly.
“It looks as if someone laid a trail for us,” I said.
“Yes,” said Julio. “Or people are coming in and out of here regularly.”
We climbed carefully down, blind at first in the dim light. There were broken-off pipes and more decaying machinery. There was the hollow of an empty cistern in front of us. The sound of running water came from the darker end of the cellar, behind us as we came down. The air was cold.
“We should have brought a torch,” said Julio.
“You don’t have any matches?”
“Only a few. We’d better keep them and let our eyes get used to the dark.”
“There isn’t anyone here, is there?”
“It doesn’t seem like it.”
We took a few steps forward and looked into the cistern. A roof of boards had been made over part of it, quite low down, and there was a ladder down the side.
“I’ll go down and look,” said Julio.
I hardly breathed while he descended the ladder and disappeared under the roof. He soon came out again holding up a packet of something white.
“Kilos of it.”
“What a place to keep it. In the middle of town.”
“People are scared of this building. And there’ll be guards in the barrio.”
“Is this what they wanted us to find?”
“I don’t see why. Unless they want us to report it.”
“Or want to incriminate us.”
Julio threw the bag back inside and wiped his hands on his pants.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, climbing out of the well.
My eyes were better adjusted to the dim light now and I could see beyond the stairs a steady trickle of water falling to the floor from a broken-off pipe in the far wall of the cellar.
“I suppose we’d better look over here,” I said, and Julio followed me.
A rough canal cut in the floor led most of the water by an almost circular route into the interior space and outside through a hole in the base of the wall; the rest splashed on to the surrounding cement, which looked dark and slimy. To each side of the pipe stood a big cement slab, like an altar or a butcher’s counter. There was something dark lying on the right-hand slab.
“It can’t be,” I said, freezing.
“Not Silvano,” said Julio in a low, taut voice. “It’s been too long.”
I stood where I was, with my heart pounding and feeling sick, while Julio stepped carefully up to the dark shape and bent over it. It was a body, wrapped in a blanket.
“Yovany,” he said, and there was a touch of relief in his voice.
I pulled myself together and joined Julio. There was a half-burnt candle stuck to the head of the slab and Julio lit it with one of his matches. I looked down at the round, fattish face and thick eyebrows. It was puffy, but it showed no sign of violence.
“How long do you think he’s been dead?” I asked.
“I don’t know anything about such things,” said Julio, “but it can’t be long – not as long as he’s been missing. I wonder what they did to him.”
He started to pull away the blanket.
“If you’re going to look at his body,” I said, “I’m going. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t take it.”
“You’re right,” said Julio, after a brief hesitation. “Why should we?”
I looked round as we started to pick our way back across the slimy cement and realized that there was a rough bust that might have been María Leona projecting from the wall above the water pipe, and geometric symbols were scrawled on the walls and the supports of the slabs.
“Light another match,” I said to Julio.
“I’ll light some more candles,” he said and proceeded to light stubs I hadn’t noticed on the slabs and along the water trough.
The dismal place acquired a macabre beauty, and I suddenly had a perception of evil so strong I nearly screamed. Then I noticed something glittering in the water, near the middle of the space between the slabs. I picked it up. It was a small silver star, and it looked to me exactly like the stars on Diana’s headband.
“What’s that?” asked Julio.
I told him.
“Diana involved in killing Yovany?” said Julio. “Why?”
“Perhaps they had Silvano down here too,” I said.
On a common impulse we ran away as fast as we could, leaving all the candles burning, back up into the daylight upstairs.
Just inside the window, two very tough young men were standing waiting for us.
“What the hell are you doing in here?” asked one of them.
“Wasn’t it you that called us?” asked Julio casually.
“Called you? Who called you?”
“I don’t know who,” said Julio, “but someone called my house this morning and said I would find something interesting in this building.”
“And did you?” The youths looked uneasy. Presumably they were guilty of abandoning their post at the time we got in.
“We found a dead man.”
“A friend of yours?”
“No,” said Julio. “We knew him but he was no friend of ours.”
“And what else?” asked the second young man.
Julio and I both put on puzzled looks.
“You mean there’s someone else down there too?” asked Julio.
“You’d better get out of here,” said the first and tougher of the two. “And don’t do anything silly like going to the police.” He smiled grimly, but I was convinced now that he was unsure of himself and preferred to get us away from the place.
We climbed out of the window, regained the jeep and drove away.
“Who do those two work for?” I asked. “And who called you?”
“They probably work for Miguelito,” he said. “As for who called me and why, I don’t understand it.”
“What are we going to do? Surely we should tell someone about Yovany?”
“I’ll tell his brother. He’s not a bad guy.”
“Where does he live?”
“In the temple barrio.”
I had crossed the bridge going toward the centre to avoid wasting time turning the jeep, but when I tried to go right on the next street leading in the direction of the temple I found it barricaded. Large stones, a car chassis, old furniture and mattress springs surrounded by smaller debris filled it from side to side.
“Is that to keep people in or out of the centre?” I wondered.
“To stop vehicles coming up this way from the police depot, I guess,” said Julio.
I drove straight on. There was apparently no one around. There were many broken windows and quite big holes in the walls of some houses. The next street leading down was equally obstructed. We were near the university office block now, and I could hear firing, getting louder. I was starting to back up when a man came running round the corner and stopped on seeing us.
“What are you doing here? You must be crazy?” he shouted. “They’re coming this way.”
I just stared at him. It took me a moment to realize that while we meditated on our murders we had driven straight into the middle of the war zone.
“Back up a bit further. I’ll open the yard for you,” the man said.
We had just got ourselves and the jeep into a rubbish-strewn yard behind a tall tin gate when we heard feet running past, and voices swearing, and then the street was full of shots and explosions. Our saviour, Reinaldo, hurried us into his ground-floor flat; he explained that the university office building with its computers and communications equipment had been fought over like a carcase between bands of dogs. It had been taken early on by the rebels, but the rightists had captured it, and then the rebels again. By now it was destroyed inside; the fighting went on, however, in it and in the streets round about.
“And what about further up town?” Julio asked.
“Similar situation round the government offices and the TV station. Whole buildings have gone.”
“And who seems to be winning?” I asked.
“Looks like Gálvez,” he said. “I don’t care too much. I just wish the fighting was over.”
I found his position understandable as I heard a loud crash a block away from us, followed by more running feet beyond his blacked-out windows and shouts of “fire”.
We were cooped up in his flat for an hour. Relief at getting out was stronger than any other feeling as we drove back on the same street, silent again, with a few more broken windows and holes in the walls.
We passed the water-works and I wondered what had changed inside it in the mean time; my sense of the urgency of continuing our search revived. Julio must have had a similar reaction, because he said, “So what’s Yovany’s body supposed to tell us?”
“How do you know it wasn’t an enemy that told us to come here?” I asked.
“Because then those thugs would have known about it. And they wouldn’t have let us go.”
“So who could it be?”
“El Gato or Pedro maybe. Maybe they wanted to talk to us as much as we did.”
We reached the temple barrio by way of the avenues and found Yovany’s brother, Alpidio, at home. Julio called him outside to give him the bad news.
He thumped the bonnet of the jeep with both fists, then leant on it, looking in equal parts stricken and angry. Yovany’s wife and old mother came running out to ask what was wrong, and when Alpidio muttered, “They found his body,” they burst out wailing.
“Oh my poor boy, where is he?” cried the mother, and Alpidio turned to her and said, “We can’t go to him. Please try to be calm,” and embraced her.
Neighbours came and led the women inside, and Alpidio said to Julio, “Let’s get out of here.”
I parked near the temple. For a moment none of us spoke; then Alpidio burst out, “The bloody fool. I told him not to get mixed up in it.”
“In what?” Julio asked.
“The drug business. He said it was easy money. And when he started to get scared – when Pancho went off the road and Miguelito said it was an accident – he couldn’t get out.”
“So you think it was Miguelito?”
“Of course it was Miguelito. I’m going after him now. You’re with me, aren’t you? He killed Silvano too.”
“But why?” I asked.
Alpidio stared at me. His anger was stronger than respect for my feelings. He said, “Your friend Silvano was very charming, but he thought too much of himself. He thought he could play at drug dealing.”
“But why should he?” I asked, foolishly, and got an answer I liked even less:
“He must have been tired of seducing girls.”
“Do you know he killed Silvano?” Julio intervened.
“Not for certain,” Alpidio admitted. “Yovany wouldn’t say. But it’s obvious, isn’t it?”
“It certainly looks like it,” said Julio.
“So are we going to look for Miguelito?” asked Alpidio.
“We could start at Luisa’s place.”
“We’ll go that far with you,” said Julio.
“I’ll fetch help,” said Alpidio.
Julio and I waited in silence. I cautiously tried my vision of Silvano for resistance to corrosion by these further levels of sordidness, and discovered it shining with a new force. I wondered if the surge of exhilaration I felt was sick, and decided it had to be let be. My thoughts were interrupted by a loud rumble from Julio’s stomach, and we both laughed, breaking the tension of hours.
“And no food in sight,” I said.
“Or drink either,” said Julio. “What a day!”
Alpidio returned with two men I’d seen at the temple, who were introduced as Gerardo and Filomeno. They were both wearing jackets, on a hot afternoon, and I supposed they had weapons in them. I drove down to the old quarry.
“You stay here,” said Julio, as I stopped.
“No way,” I said. “You might need me to deal with Luisa.”
The other men smiled briefly and Julio said “Well, watch out!”
We started the tortuous climb to Luisa’s shack. A floor up, a little girl appeared on the stairs in front of us. She was crying.
“What’s the matter?” Julio asked her.
“I’m scared. She was screaming so loud.”
“Did you see anyone go up to her place?”
“I saw Miguelito go up the stairs.”
“Why are you out here by yourself?” asked Filomeno.
“There’s nobody home.”
Filomeno knocked on a nearby door and we heard the child being welcomed in. We ran on up to the top. Alpidio knocked at the door; there was no answer. He said loudly, “I’m coming in.” There was still no answer and he heaved at the flimsy door with his shoulder till the lock gave way and it flew open.
The room was a shambles – clothes fallen with their rail, pots and broken plates on the floor, a heap of fat female flesh face down on the bloody mattress with a bloody kitchen knife beside it. A side-on face with the eye turned up and the tongue sticking out.
Julio stepped into the room and touched the body. “Still warm,” he said. He looked out of the window on to the hillside and shook his head.
After a long silence we closed the door and went back down. I was feeling sick again and the men looked queasy too.
“Shit!” said Gerardo, as we came out into the open. “She was a bitch but she didn’t deserve that. Miguelito is out of his mind.”
“We knew that already,” said Alpidio.
“But why should he kill her?” asked Filomeno.
“She must have been talking. And he probably enjoyed it.”
We were silent for a moment and then Julio asked “And now what?”
“He can’t stay in Mucutay after this.” said Alpidio. “I’m leaving straight away for the Mountain.”
“I’m ready to go,” said Gerardo.
“Me too,” said Filomeno.
“Julio?” asked Alpidio.
Julio looked at me.
“You follow up this line,” I said. “I’m going to stay with Diana.”
“Be careful,” he said.
“You too. And how will you get to the Mountain?”
“I have a car,” said Gerardo. “We’ll manage.”
I drove them back to the temple barrio and went home. I gave Josefina a summary of the day’s events. She was horrified, but too happy at having had a call from Rosario, whole and confident, to be upset for long over what she hadn’t seen.
Agueda called next morning. Bald Master was very ill. I drove down to their barrio as soon as it was light, guessing the petrol in the jeep would get me there and back. I found Agueda worried and angry because Julio had set out for the Mountain with the other men without explaining to her what was going on. I told her what we’d done the day before.
“Why doesn’t he tell me?” she said. “I can stand it if I know what’s happening.”
I wondered if that was the real reason why she’d called me, but when I went across to Bald Master’s house I saw that what she’d said was true. He looked drained and drawn and without strength.
“Have you run out of medicine again?” I asked him.
“No. But I don’t want to take any more.”
“So you’re in bad pain?”
“Not unbearable. The flower drops mute it and keep me lucid.”
“Has a doctor seen you?”
“Manuel was here. He says I should be in hospital, but I won’t go there. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, and didn’t know what else to say.
He insisted on getting up and making tea for us, and he wanted to hear all the details of what we’d found at the waterworks.
“You won’t be able to go on playing the innocent,” he said, when I told him of my plan to follow Diana. “You’ll be taking big risks.”
“I know,” I said, “but I have to go on. It’s not just for Silvano’s sake – it seems to be for me, for a vision that’s coming out of it all.”
“Can you absorb so much evil?” Bald Master asked.
I couldn’t answer that and he didn’t expect me to. He was silent for a while, sitting propped against the wall in the meditation room. Then he turned and looked at me with a lopsided smile.
“I haven’t been much use to you, have I?” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, startled. “I always rely on your understanding.”
“I haven’t been seeing clearly enough. I didn’t know Silvano was playing such sinister games. I still don’t know what happened to him.”
“How could you?” I said. “You’re not supposed to be a medium, are you?”
“No.” He smiled at that. “I wonder what I am supposed to be. This disintegrating body is a nuisance.”
“To me too. I wish there could have been more time.”
“You enjoy the world, don’t you?”
“I do. But I’m going to leave it very soon. I have to look inward now. I’m taking the new orchid elixir. I will go on praying for your search to end well.”
“Are you saying goodbye?”
“Not quite. You will see me again.”
He had shut his eyes. I bent over him to kiss him quickly and went out before he could see my tears.
I decided to check up on Diana. I wasn’t sure whether I’d tell her any of what I’d found out the day before. As it turned out, I didn’t have to decide, because she was not to be found.
The company at the dance theatre was once more immersed in gloom. Diana had danced magnificently after my visit the day before, and announced at the end of the rehearsal that she would not be in again soon. She had not come today, and she was not at her flat.
“But surely she gave you a reason,” I said.
“She refused to discuss it,” said Martín. “She said her life could not be limited to the theatre and she would do what she felt like.”
“She looked rather mad, actually,” said Horacio, less complacent than usual.
“Do you think it’s her father again?” I asked Laura.
“She didn’t mention him,” she said, “but it might be. His side seems to be getting the worst of the fighting.”
“So is that going to mean she’s gone for ever?” asked Martín, and several people said “Of course not,” but without much conviction.
“Well, good luck,” I said, as often not knowing what to say to this group.
“Same to you,” they said,” and Laura accompanied me to the door.
“Still no trace of Silvano?” she asked.
“I’m getting close,” I said. “And Diana is certainly mad.”
“Be careful!” she said.
With this news I needed to get to Caracas as soon as possible and I went next to the airport. My compadre said he would be happy to help me again as long as I told him what the drama was all about when we had time for a quiet drink (I promised to do so; I could give him an expurgated version), but there were a lot of people waiting and he couldn’t put me on a plane till next morning.
The jeep ran out of petrol a few blocks from my house and I had to leave it in the street, asking the people in the nearest house to keep an eye on it. I decided to spend the afternoon working in the garden. Josefina wanted to help me, but she was worrying again about Rosario. The sounds of fighting from the centre of town were louder than they had ever been, and with every distant boom and crash Josefina winced and had to force herself to go on weeding. Finally I told her to go and watch television as a distraction, and she assented gratefully. There were lots of pink and red roses flowering, and in the shelter they gave my heart I let myself start to think about Silvano.
At first fleeting memories came, Silvano here in the garden with me, laughing as he told me about some incident at the temple, or calling me at midnight after rehearsal to go and eat a hotdog at a street stall – and come back here to bed.
Then my memory fixed on one particular episode, and I started to relive it hour by hour, minute by minute in places, with an intensity and precision that made it almost hallucinatory. My body continued to prune the roses and tidy the edges of the flower-beds, but the sensations that were present to me were salt on my body after bathing and sand burning my bare feet and Silvano touching me…
The dance company has finished a show and Silvano has some days free; I, grateful as ever for my independence from office hours, am thrilled to take off at a moment’s notice and we drive practically non-stop, overnight, to the sea. We have decided to camp at a small, remote beach in the east of the country, almost deserted now of visitors, and in any case visited mostly by devotees of María Leona, because of the temple on the rocks at the far end of the bay.
We set up our tent within sight of the fishing village – the people here know Silvano and will make sure our belongings are safe – and spend the first day dozing on the beach, swimming when we wake and sleeping again. At evening a fisherman comes to offer us part of his catch; we buy a huge fish, roast it over a fire and eat it with our fingers, sucking the bones. The fisherman has stayed to watch our preparations, I suspect partly out of curiosity about me, and we feed him too – there is plenty. At first he is shy with me, then seems to decide I’m not a snobbish, prying foreigner and accepts me. I know the part I have to play; while he and Silvano chatter and joke, I remain silent and smile or make a brief comment if one of them addresses me directly. I am perfectly happy.
The fisherman asks after an ‘Antonia’ I’ve never heard of. Silvano answers briefly that he supposes she’s fine. The fisherman takes the hint and glances at me quickly as if finally convinced that I am Silvano’s lover. He must have been wondering because of my age. This doesn’t upset me – for all I know, Silvano has been here before with ten different women, but I am with him now. Silvano, however, is no longer completely at ease, and the fisherman soon leaves us.
There is a half moon in the sky and we walk along the beach, splashing in the warm waves, to the end where the dark, empty temple stands on its rock. I am going to climb up, but Silvano says no, let’s wait for daylight to go inside.
“Why? It must be beautiful at night.”
“María is very powerful here. She can do strange things to people at night.”
“That sounds interesting!” I say; but I can see Silvano is really opposed to going up, perhaps even a little afraid, and I say, “OK then, I’ll race you back!” and start running back down the beach.
As I have intended, he very quickly catches me and throws me down on the sand, and we make love with the waves washing round us. And then go back to the tent and make love again.
The next morning, after we get up late, Silvano wants to show me some pools in the little river that empties into the bay. We drive a few kilometres inland, then leave the jeep and walk across a field, seeking the already hot, still shade of acacia trees. The stream is in denser shade, the water cool and soft. We wade through several small pools and climb a pile of rocks to come suddenly on a large, almost round pool, into which the whole stream flows by a waterfall in a cleft between big stones. There is a simple cement statue of María Leona beside the fall, but no other sign of worship.
“There are no cleansing rites here?” I ask.
“No,” answers Silvano. “People are a bit wary of this place.”
I am going to ask why, but Silvano has stripped and dives into the pool. I take off my clothes too and follow him. I lie floating in the centre of the pool for a long time, feeling the gentleness of the water and looking up at the branches of trees against the bright sky. The place seems entirely peaceful. When I join Silvano on the rocks at the foot of the fall, he is smiling with an odd kind of satisfaction. He looks like the young god of the river, his bronze skin glowing in the speckled light and his lighter eyes the vegetable mineral colour of the pool itself; but his smile has something personal in it.
“Well?” I ask.
“The Great Snake liked you,” he says.
“What Great Snake?”
“There’s a huge snake in this pool – it belongs to María. That’s why people don’t bathe here.”
“And you let me bathe here?”
“I do myself. Let’s swim back across.”
We swim back; the pool still feels gentle. I wonder if I have passed some kind of test. I ask Silvano, as we walk back to the jeep, “Is there really a big snake in that pool?”
Silvano shrugs. “Who knows?” he says. “Everyone here believes so.”
We drive a little way back along the coast and have lunch – fish again, of course – at a restaurant on the shore, then return to the tent and doze in the shade of the two coconut palms nearby.
Late in the afternoon, when the sun is no longer so fierce and a wind has got up, we run into the sea and wrestle for a long time with the waves, hand in hand or embracing, going over or under them or letting them carry us according to how big and strong they are. Then we fetch towels and walk down the beach to the temple.
There are rough steps up that I didn’t see last night. We climb them and the temple is straight in front of us. It has no door, or even front – it is three stone walls and a palm-frond roof. The side walls are plastered over inside, and painted with frescoes of a young and sensuous María in a red dress, surrounded by animals and butterflies and holding out her arms to the observer – the frescoes have suffered from the salt air and are flaking off in places. On the floor in front of the plain stone altar are plates and jars with fresh offerings of food and drink. Two phallic stones at the sides of the entrance seem, when I look at them again, to be figures of men struggling to emerge from shapelessness. On the altar is a very different image of María, a lifesize bust with a mature face, severe but infinitely understanding, at the same time compassionate and ruthless. Shells decorate the base of the bust and seaweed has been draped over the head and shoulders.
“I’ve never seen a María like this,” I say.
“No,” says Silvano. “I told you she was powerful.”
I go on studying her and feel how her power and her challenge to sound the depths emanate from her and fill the space where we are standing, like a heavy light. Then I turn to the view that she is facing, the immense, breathing sea.
“She’s the Goddess of the sea!” I exclaim; but Silvano is not listening. He is leaning on the wall at the entrance, on the right, his head bent and with an expression of seriousness I have rarely seen in him.
“Who is Antonia?” I ask, without knowing I am going to.
His head jerks up and he looks at me with astonishment.
“Whatever made you ask that?” he says, quite roughly.
“I don’t know,” I say. “The fisherman mentioned her last night… then you didn’t want to come up here. I don’t know what the association was…”
He sighs heavily. “You’re telepathic. Well, I’ll tell you. She’s a girl I brought here once. I liked her, but she was crazy about me, and while we were here she said I had to marry her or else. I didn’t know what she meant by ‘or else’ – I thought she meant she’d have to leave me – and anyway I didn’t want to marry her and I told her. She didn’t insist any more and that night – there was a full moon – we came here. She wasn’t a Leonite and the temple surprised her. She stood for a long time staring at María and she was looking a bit crazy, so I was going to make her come away, but as soon as I touched her she turned and ran out and jumped into the sea – over there. She fell half on a rock and broke her ankle and got badly grazed, but that wasn’t the worst part, because she seemed to have gone mad. I pulled her out of course and a doctor staying in the village looked after her but she didn’t see us or speak to us – she just went on saying, “the eyes of the sea, the eyes of the sea”. Her parents came to fetch her, and later they told me she’d recovered, but a friend of hers told me she she’s never really been all right since.”
I remain silent, and Silvano, who doesn’t appear to expect any comment, says, “Come on, let’s go.” María, when I turn to salute her, looks a shade grimmer.
“Why do you come back here if it upsets you?” I ask, walking on the beach.
Silvano looks surprised; his mood has changed back to his usual lightness.
“It would be silly to stay away because of that,” he says. “And I thought you’d like the place.”
“I love it,” I say, touched almost in spite of myself. “Thank you for bringing me here.”
Silvano takes my hand, his story forgotten; but I can’t forget. I wonder if he has thought my presence would help to lay a ghost – or whether that is giving myself, and the memory, too much importance. I wonder if it’s conscience that hurts him, but the way he has told the story doesn’t suggest he feels any responsibility. But he does care. Another human being has suffered because of him and that makes him sad. What more should I ask of him?
We go to the village bar for a beer. Visitors have arrived from Caracas, two young couples, who are staying in the rooms upstairs. Conversation becomes general; the newcomers are asking about hiring boats to go to otherwise inaccessible beaches. Silvano gives advice as an expert; I sit quietly. One of the girls, Maritza, is blonde and sexy. She is soon flirting with Silvano; he plays up to her, enjoying the envy of the other men in the bar. Her boyfriend, thin and hard-looking, is poker-faced. The other girl and her boyfriend ask me where I’m from and we chat for a while; Silvano is sitting beside Maritza now and speaking to her privately.
It is not very late when we leave, walking back to the tent in silence. I wonder how we are going to break the tension between us or whether it is only in me, but once we are lying down we come together with complete naturalness.
Third day – half our time here has passed. We spend a lazy morning, swimming and sunbathing. Silvano is very attentive. He makes sure I’m not getting burnt and when we retire to the shade he asks me to read to him from the poems of Mirabhai, which I have brought with me. We eat a picnic lunch, and then he says he’s going up to the bar to buy some beer. I would be happy to go too, but something in his casualness makes me say I’ll stay and have a rest.
Time passes, far more time than is needed to fetch the beer. I have not been able to sleep, and I am getting impatient. I’m unwilling to think the obvious thought – surely Silvano could not be so shameless as to go off with Maritza while I am expecting him back at any moment – after all she is with a man too. But what else could have happened? Finally – after a couple of hours – I get up and walk toward the other end of the beach, away from the temple, trying not to think at all, trying just to be in the sea and the sand and the sky.
As I am reaching the end of the bay, Silvano and Maritza appear, climbing over the rocks. Silvano waves cheerfully; she gives me a triumphant look as they come up. I am unable to say anything and can only hope my face shows none of the pain and humiliation I’m feeling.
“Let’s swim back,” says Silvano. “The sea’s calm enough.”
Maritza says, “I’ve got to get back,” and flashes a smile of sensual complicity at him as she starts to run up the beach. I wade into the sea behind Silvano, and my main thought as we start to swim is, well, at least he’s washing that woman off him.
He offers no explanations and no excuses. Since I don’t trust myself to ask anything – not even “what about that beer?” – without breaking down and causing a scene, I remain silent. I wonder if I am being cowardly, but in the name of what should I accuse him? My pride? The story of Antonia has made it clear to me, if I didn’t already know it, that a relationship with Silvano has to be carried on on his terms. And I am not ready to give him up yet – I am not ready at all.
Our silence – quite serene on his side – is broken by the arrival of our fisherman with some big crabs. There are no looks from him to tell me that he knows of Silvano’s desertion of me. He will no doubt hear about it when he goes home; but for now he and his crabs give us the means of starting to talk again. We buy the crabs and discuss with him the best way of cooking them. He refuses our invitation to share them with him, but when he leaves us the process of making a fire and roasting them on sticks keeps us communicating. We get messy eating them, go into the sea to clean up, and stay some time floating in a silence which has become almost companionable.
What will happen, I wonder, when we are lying down again in the tent? Or rather, how will I react, because Silvano seems to have no doubt we are back to normal.
I needn’t have worried. As soon as he draws me toward him and runs his hand over my body, I submit. I submit to my lord and master as completely, as shakenly, as joyfully as I have ever done, responding to every caress and every thrust with all the knowing strength his beautiful young body inspires in me, coming in an explosion of stars that rush through every inch of me and out through my pores to wash over him and fill the tent.
He falls sleep immediately, his head on my arm. I watch his face for a long time, so beautiful and serene and innocent, asking myself what kind of man this is, to have taken me over so completely. Is he an angel, a great gift to me from heaven, or is he an archdemon? In the end I decide he’s both. Or possibly neither, just a very attractive young man. I withdraw my arm carefully and go to sleep.
Our fourth and last day at the beach is perfect. There is a brisk breeze and the waves are just the right size to play with; as they buffet me and sweep over me, it feels like Silvano making love to me, and his arms are there too, holding me, caressing me, going under with me. We spend hours in the sea, and lying in the shade reading poems; we go back to the temple, taking an offering of fruit for María, and I feel she is blessing us from the depths of her omniscience as we stand hand in hand in front of her.
Returning from the temple, we go up to the café to fetch the beer we went without the day before. Silvano suggests it casually, and I accept just as casually. I know there is no mean trick involved. The café is empty when we arrive, and we sit down for a drink with Pablo, the owner, who is observing us carefully but without malice. Before we leave, the four visitors come in, on the way to their rooms. Maritza’s boyfriend turns away from us and goes straight through to the back of the house; she stops, with a little smile on her face, as if waiting to be invited to join us. After the general greeting when they came in, Silvano says nothing to her, doesn’t even look at her, and in a moment she moves on too, with a sneer. I am pleased, though not sure I ought to be.
That night it rains briefly. It’s snug holding each other in the tent as the shower batters it; and in the morning the air, the rocks, the sand, the plants are all glistening. We pack our things into the jeep and drive away.
When I came back to the present I was sitting on the lawn under the avocado tree, gazing into the dusk. A long moment passed before I realized that the memory I’d been absorbed in was remote, and that Silvano was dead. The sense of loss was excruciating; it seemed I had been with him alive just moments ago and his death was an immediate blow.
As I emerged further from my trance, I asked myself why I should have remembered that episode in particular. It had happened literally years before, early in our relationship, and I hadn’t thought about it at all for ages, and never in such detail. Then, remembering my reactions in the replay I had just been through, it dawned on me that I must have repressed the memory, because the pain had been too strong. I must have decided not to admit to myself how high the price of loving Silvano and being loved by him could be.
And it had been quite easy to forget, because Silvano had never humiliated me in that way again. I knew he had other women, but he never forced me to witness the fact; if he was with me on any occasion, there was no hint he was tempted by anyone else. I wondered whether I had passed a test that day on the beach, whether up to then he had feared being trapped by my demands, by the sheer emotional weight of a woman my age, and I had shown him he could trust me to hold him lightly. In any case, he had never made me suffer so badly again.
Until just now. Until Diana. Which I had also dealt with.
The present fully restored, I got up and went inside, where Josefina had supper nearly ready.
After dark we began to hear different noises from earlier in the day, sirens and horns on the avenue, yelling from the tall buildings upriver and the barrio below them. Suddenly a sound like cymbals rang out from the barrio and was answered by others, till a concert of what I soon recognized as metal pots and pans being banged together filled the night. It was an exhilarating sound, surprisingly musical, and it reminded me of the bells in Indian temples and on the ankles of dancers and elephants in procession. It went on and on, swelling and ebbing in waves, and the shouting grew too, to a chant in which the words “Gálvez has won” were a splendidly monotonous refrain. Josefina and I grabbed pots and lids, ran out into my respectable street and began banging them, and were soon joined by most of my neighbours.
Gálvez’s people had won in Mucutay, but the situation was not as clear in Caracas. The plane I went on was private and was allowed to leave Mucutay without delay, but it circled the Caracas airport – the military airport, in the city – several times before the pilot must have felt confident that his friends were in control on the ground and made up his mind to land. They were not my friends, and their grim yet cocky attitude made me nervous. I walked away from the plane as fast as I could.
There was no transport available, so I set out to walk to Maggie’s place; I had only a shoulder-bag. It wasn’t very far, but it took me hours because every time a jeep full of soldiers approached I stopped to make myself as unobtrusive as possible, against the pylons of the bridges over the motor-way, behind trees on the road off it, and in doorways or behind heaps of rubble when I reached the streets. The soldiers must have seen me anyway, but they were not interested in me. From other people out on foot I found out that the fighting had been particularly bad near the airport, and learnt also how to distinguish between the Gálvez people and the rightists – the rightist jeeps were flying the national flag and the Galvistas had their own emblem, a yellow triangle with a green sword.
Maggie was at home and Salvador too.
“Well hullo!” said Maggie. “How ever did you get here?”
“I flew and walked.”
“Have you come to meet the red tiger-woman again?” asked Salvador.
“I expect so.”
“I want to know what’s going on,” said Maggie, “and you must be starving.”
I admitted I was.
She served me the plentiful remains of their lunch and sat looking at me expectantly. Maggie and I had been through a lot together, including helping each other through divorces, but it wasn’t easy to know what to tell her about my present predicament, apart from the fact of Silvano’s death and wanting to know what had happened to him.
“And how does this exotic woman come into it?” she asked.
“It seems – I mean I know – Silvano was having an affair with her as well. She’s some kind of priestess of María Leona. And her father’s one of the rightist generals.”
“Well that makes everything perfectly clear,” said Maggie with one of her bursts of laughter.
“It’s not at all clear to me either,” I said, “but I think she knows, at least, how he died.”
Maggie stared at me, seriously this time, and said, “It sounds dangerous. Do you really have to find out what happened? What difference can it make now?”
I looked round at her comfortable, untidy sitting-room, her son curled, looking interested, in the corner of a divan, and Maggie herself, kind and down-to-earth, and I realized that at some point I had crossed a border out of their reality. I wondered whether having children would have kept me sane – because it seemed to me that Maggie and Salvador were sane, and I was pushing on into a complicated madness with no promise that it would give me the revelation I demanded and with a good chance of it being a death-trap.
“I know it’s crazy,” I said to Maggie, “but I can’t stop now.”
“Well I guess you know,” she said. “What are you going to do next?”
“Is it impossible to get to Chacao?” I asked, finishing my coffee. I’d been thinking Simón and Gabriel might go with me to the pink villa. I’d feel less exposed, though I’d be putting them at risk too. At least I wanted to talk to them, to see if they had any new information.
“It’s not impossible,” said Salvador, “but it might be a bad idea. There’s still a lot of fighting round there.”
“In the top part?”
“Not so bad there. Shall we call you a taxi?”
“You’ll see,” Salvador laughed.
Salvador made a phone call and soon the doorbell rang and a very old and decrepit jeep was standing in the street below.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Emergency service,” said Salvador. “The ingenuity of the people of our city.”
My driver introduced himself as Alvaro. He was a solidly built, attractive man with dark hair beginning to go grey and intelligent eyes. He told me to be ready to crouch down on the floor of the jeep if we saw trouble approaching, and set off. There were few cars on the streets, and their occupants mostly looked worried and furtive, but Alvaro seemed quite calm.
I directed him first to Simón’s building, which was nearer, and we arrived there without encountering any obstacle. The whole building looked closed and deserted; no one came to a window as we drew up and I got out to knock on the door. There was no answer. I looked in the window of Simón’s kitchen and there was no sign of his presence. I threw a small stone at the poet’s window – at least he might know where Simón was – but there was no response.
“A lot of people who live round here have gone away,” said Alvaro as I returned to the jeep. “The fighting was too close.”
“That must be it,” I said. “Probably the other person I want to see won’t be there either.”
But as we turned the corner into a wider street a bit further on, I saw Gabriel. He was alone, walking away from us down the middle of the street, with his arms spread wide, moving them up and down at intervals as if they were wings. As we approached him an army jeep suddenly swung into the street a little ahead of him and came straight toward him with its horn blasting. Gabriel took no notice, just kept on walking. The jeep braked abruptly and swerved; even so Gabriel was knocked over sideways as it jolted to a halt against the kerb.
Alvaro, without consulting me, stopped, jumped out and bent over Gabriel, who was lying still with his eyes shut. I followed him. The driver of the army jeep came up, shaken and angry.
“Fucking madman,” he said. “He should be arrested.”
“He’s hurt,” said Alvaro. “I’ll make sure he gets off the streets.”
“You know him?”
“No. But I’m a doctor.”
The soldier turned on his heel without answering; the army jeep drove away.
I knelt beside Gabriel and asked my driver “Are you really a doctor?”
“This is the friend I wanted to see,” I said. I felt like crying.
Gabriel opened his eyes and said “Helena.”
“Gabriel,” I said. “Are you all right?”
“My arm hurts.”
Alvaro felt the arm carefully and said “It doesn’t seem broken. Can you get up?”
Gabriel suddenly jumped to his feet, grinning. My distress turned momentarily to anger and then to horrified pity as I realized that I was in fact looking at a madman.
“I am the archangel!” declaimed Gabriel, starting to run round us in a circle, but he winced as he tried to lift his hurt arm, or wing.
“Come on,” said Alvaro, “we’ll give you a lift home.”
“I don’t want to go home.”
“I want to see your goddesses again,” I said.
Gabriel looked at me as if testing my sincerity and then said quietly “OK”, and we all got into the jeep. Sitting in the back, he shouted several times as we drove the short distance to his building, “I am the archangel!”
Beltrán opened the door to us and asked, both angry and relieved, “Where did you find him?”
“Not far from here,” I said. “He got hit by an army jeep, but he seems to be all right.”
“Come inside,” said Beltrán quite roughly to Gabriel. Alvaro and I were apparently not invited to enter.
“Alvaro Giuliani. I’m a doctor,” said Alvaro, holding out his hand to Beltrán, who took it. “I’d like to have a better look at his arm, and I’ll give him something to calm him down.” He was holding a case he had brought from the jeep.
We all went upstairs. Belkis and Vasco also visibly assented to our presence on hearing Alvaro was a doctor. She asked, as we went through into Gabriel’s room, “Have you found out what happened to Silvano?”
“Not yet,” I said. “It’s a bad time to be trying.”
Gabriel’s room was exactly as it had been on my previous visit; the tidiness within its strangeness now struck me as extraordinary, in view of his mental confusion. Perhaps he hadn’t been there since his manic crisis began. The pocked goddess with her scorched and shrivelled child still stared balefully, and the cloudy eyes of the dreaming goddess still yearned skyward, and neither was less powerful because I had been expecting them. I saw Alvaro take them in with a shudder.
Gabriel refused to lie down, but sat on the edge of the bed while Alvaro examined his arm and shoulder. He found evidence of previous bumps and blows, and confirmed the arm wasn’t broken but needed a sling, for which Gabriel provided a piece of black cloth from a suitcase under the bed. He also pulled out a kind of bonnet with donkey’s ears and put it on after Alvaro had tied his sling.
“What do you think?” he asked me. “Am I an archangel or a mule?”
“Why not both?” I asked.
“Why not? The glory of the sky and the humility of dust. And either way sterile, sterile, sterile.”
“Do you feel sterile?” I asked.
“No. I’m bursting with germs. Shall I show you something?”
Gabriel swung open the door of the heavy safe, revealing shelves stacked with paintings and portfolios. He pulled out a sheaf of papers and dropped them on the bed. They were drawings, not large, but vivid, done in quick strokes of some reddish-brown material which thickened in places.
“Yes, it’s blood,” said Gabriel, as Alvaro and I stared at the drawings he was spreading out on the bed. “My blood.”
“There’s a lot of blood there,” said Alvaro.
“Oh, this is a couple of years’ work. But I did have to stop lately. I was getting anaemic.”
I was looking at the drawings and feeling appalled, physically repelled and immensely moved at the same time. Some of them were of monsters, or shattered and deformed pieces of bodies, but others were of whole people massing together or dancing. I pointed to one where a crowd of thin, long-limbed figures was pushing inwards so that the ones in the middle were forced up and one had got free of their hands and was starting to fly, and asked Gabriel, “What’s happening here?”
“That fellow’s going to be the saviour of all of them,” he said. “He’s their hope.”
“And this one?” asked Alvaro. The drawing was of a bird with a large belly and breasts in a bare tree; flying saucers in the shape of eyes were wheeling round her.
“A goddess. And the intelligences that will help us if we can see them.”
“Do you think we’ll see them in time?” I asked.
Gabriel didn’t answer. His eyes had gone unfocused and he swayed on his feet. Alvaro quickly gathered up the drawings on the bed (he evidently didn’t mind touching them; it would have bothered me), and gently helped Gabriel to sit and then lie down. He lay quite still with his eyes shut for a while, then opened them and said, “Listen.”
“What can you hear?” I asked.
“The wings beating. The fire.”
“Your heart beating,” said Alvaro quietly.
“My heart beating in the cave. No one should be wandering in these caverns without pity.”
He had shut his eyes again and seemed to be dozing, so we were quiet too. Then he said, almost whispering, “Silvano – Silvano in the cave… Not saved, sacrifice… sacrifice…”
“Is the crisis over?” I asked Alvaro.
“He may just be completely worn out,” Alvaro said. “I’ll give him an injection to make sure he rests for a long time.”
Gabriel didn’t react to the injection. We went out into the front room of the flat, where the rest of the family were now sitting. Alvaro put a box of capsules on the table and told them to make sure Gabriel didn’t go out.
“Easier said than done,” said Vasco.
“I don’t doubt it,” said Alvaro. “Pity, with his talent too. But try to look after him.”
They looked taken aback, but said thank you as we left.
Alvaro and I climbed into the jeep and sat looking at each other for a moment. There were so many questions to be asked on both sides that neither of us knew where to begin. In the end Alvaro asked the practical question, “Where do you want to go now?”
I didn’t answer immediately. With neither Simón nor Gabriel available to go with me I was going to have to face the temple in the pink villa alone. It was perhaps not too late in the day to go there straight away, but the encounter with Gabriel in his manic condition had shaken me badly and I wanted to be strong to face Lucindo and the rest. Perhaps Diana. It occurred to me I might find someone known, and a friend of Silvano, at the big temple in the centre.
“Is it possible to go to the centre?” I asked Alvaro.
“The María Leona temple.”
“Near the Palace? No, I’m sorry, that’s where the worst of the fighting still is. It would be mad to try.”
“In that case there wouldn’t be anyone there anyway,” I said, accepting fate. “Can you take me back to where we came from?”
“Sure,” said Alvaro, starting the jeep. “But I wish you would satisfy my curiosity about what you’re doing and what you wanted this Gabriel for.”
“I’m curious about you too,” I said.
“All right. You ask first. There’ll be less to tell.”
“Are you Italian?”
“Giuliani? My grandfather. The rest is pure criollo.”
“Why are you driving a taxi in these risky conditions? Not for the money, I would imagine.”
“Not for the money,” he agreed. “I’ve been able to help people who were wounded. Not that I want to sound heroic,” he went on. “I’d rather be out in the streets doing something than sitting at home. Especially as I’m recently divorced and home is empty.”
“I see,” I said. I did.
“Now you. What did you want from Gabriel and – Simón, wasn’t it, you were shouting for? – important enough to be out looking for them in these risky conditions?”
“No short answer will make much sense,” I said, “and I can’t go through it all. But Gabriel’s brother, who was my lover, has been killed and I’ve been trying to find out what happened to him. And where his body is. I thought Gabriel and Simón, who’s his friend, might come with me on the next step of the search.”
“You’re right,” said Alvaro, glancing at me with a half-comical grimace. “Now I have about a thousand questions more. But right now I’d better think about where we’re going.”
Ahead of us, toward the airport where I’d arrived in the morning, was a blaze above the buildings and the noise of war. We turned away toward the mountain and climbed to the high ring-road, where we stopped and joined the people from quite a number of other cars in watching the battle for the airport, fought on the ground by tanks and men. No one was saying much – among strangers it was impossible to know who was on which side, and I wasn’t even sure, though I supposed, that Alvaro was in favour of Gálvez.
When we talked we discussed Gabriel, his sickness and his vision. Alvaro’s point of view was more clinical than mine, but we were both awed at how Gabriel had used his illness, to go to the depths of horror and glimpse the possibility of resurrection. I wished, and didn’t mention, that Silvano had had a little of his brother’s seriousness.
Finally a yellow and green flag went up the tall pole in front of a burnt out building on the airport, and a muted cheer rose from some of the watchers. Alvaro and I looked at each other and recognized our common satisfaction. We grinned and got back into the jeep to drive down to Maggie’s house.
“Could I help you in your next step?” he asked.
I was very tempted to say yes; I already knew Alvaro was someone I could rely on. But the moment after I felt sure I shouldn’t involve him.
“No,” I said. “Thank you very much but no. It’s too complicated. I’ll be all right on my own.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course you’re not, but I won’t insist. Do you need any more lifts at least?”
“Yes. Tomorrow morning.”
When he stopped the jeep at the door to Maggie’s building he said, “I hope you’re not going to ask how much you owe me,” so I didn’t. We arranged for him to come in the morning and he drove away.
Maggie and Salvador were on the roof of their building, watching the streets fill up with people celebrating the victory of Gálvez in their quarter.
“Any progress?” asked Salvador.
“Not really,” I said. “Tomorrow will be the day.”
“Did you see her?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re very interested in this woman!” said Maggie to her son.”
“She’s not a woman, she’s an alien,” he said. “There’s José Luis down there. I’m going down too.”
“Take care,” said Maggie.
Maggie and I fetched drinks and watched from the roof as night fell and the still divided city became a seemingly random pattern of darks and lights. In our district people were letting off rockets and flares, and fireworks of all kinds fizzed and banged, but further away the rattling and roaring was deadly and sudden sheets of flame rose as buildings burned.
I wondered what General Ribera was doing, and his daughter, and how Gálvez’s advance would affect my search, and whether Gabriel was all right, and where Silvano was, and finally whether, in the midst of such chaos, there would ever be any answers again. Then I let the rum take over and forgot the questions.
That night I dreamt again.
I am walking in winter countryside, wearing a warm, russet-coloured suit. Suddenly a young man is standing in front of me. He is pitifully gaunt and stooped and ungainly and is dressed only in thin rags. I can’t see his face, but I know he is mine. He enters a kind of pen made of boards interwoven with thorny branches, and I follow him – I have to follow him – and I feel an overwhelming mixture of pity and passion and yielding to fate. A fire starts among the thorns. The young man sinks hopelessly to the ground. He is going to die. I want to share his fate, but I am both inside and outside the pen at the same time. In the distance I hear dogs baying.
There have been miscalculations, attrition, breaches in power at vulnerable points. Leakages round the bodies of betrayed secrets. Secret bodies. But the end is nowhere near, as fools are saying. Is Gálvez also a son of the Goddess, a bastard son? Has he borrowed without me knowing it some of my darkness?
I got up early the next day and prepared myself as well as I could. I put on a deep blue linen suit – I had decided to stick to blue to emphasize my difference from the people at the red-shaded temple – and elegant medium-heeled shoes, with a silver necklace and earrings. I used light makeup. I knew no one could laugh at my appearance, and even if there was no audience at the temple, at least I felt ready to act a strong part.
Alvaro drove up to the door while I was drinking some black coffee, which I needed for my nerves, though my head was quite clear. Maggie, watching the street from a window, asked, “If you don’t come back, what shall I do with your things?” She was trying to joke, but it came out seriously.
“I might not come back,” I said, wanting to have it said. “I think I’m coming to the end of my search, and I’m going to find out what happened to Silvano, but I don’t know if there’s anything after that.”
“Is it worth it?” asked Maggie.
“How can I measure that? It must be if I’m so determined to go on.”
Maggie hugged me and I went downstairs. Alvaro seemed like an old friend. He gave me an appreciative look as I got into the jeep, but said nothing. He looked tired, and as we drove toward the other side of the valley I asked him if he’d been out all night. He had, not on the streets but working in a makeshift hospital. Listening to him describe it, I forgot to be nervous. Alvaro stopped the jeep near the tall pink gate to the villa and promised to wait.
I rang the bell. The man-servant came to the gate and recognized me; he led me into the hall of the house and asked me to wait. Presently Mimi came downstairs. There were pouches under her eyes and her bleached hair stuck out in brittle clumps. I could see that she didn’t know how to react to my visit, whether to be friendly or rude. The attempt to be aloof sat uneasily on her flat features.
“Good morning,” I said formally. “I hope it’s not too early to disturb you?” It was about nine a.m. in fact.
“No, it’s not early.”
“And is your priest here?”
“He lives here,” she said, as I had expected.
“Well, I’m in Caracas on the same business as before, and I would like to ask him a few more questions. Also,” I added, to make it more difficult for her to just refuse, “to salute your beautiful María.”
She was still thinking she should probably kick me out, but she decided to pass on the responsibility. She smiled slightly and said, “I will let Lucindo know you are here. If he is not too busy he will see you,” and went back up the stairs.
I ignored the obvious instruction to wait where I was and followed her. She didn’t notice – she was either deeply preoccupied or drugged – until she was opening the door to the temple at the end of the upper corridor, and then she was so startled that she pushed the door wide open with her shoulder as she spun round with her hands stretched out to push me back.
The temple was not the place of flawless sensuous luxury it had been the last time I saw it. The curtains were pulled unevenly over the windows, there was a grubby trail through the white carpet from door to altar, and the lilies banked behind the statue of the goddess were dead or dying. Lucindo, dressed in a non-priestly shirt and pants, was sitting in one of the chairs on the marble semi-circle with a telephone at his feet. He had his legs crossed (“crossing” is forbidden at altars of the goddess) and was smoking an ordinary cigarette. His unhealthy, shapeless face was annoyed.
“I told you not to disturb me,” he shouted at Mimi.
“Yes,” said Mimi, and she was trembling, “but Helena wants to see you and she followed me up.”
“Send her in then,” he said, grasping the situation.
Mimi fled, shutting the door behind her, and I walked demurely across the room, keeping up the pretence of a visit to a wise old man. Lucindo stamped out his cigarette on the marble and sat up. I bowed first to the young María, who looked wistful, and then to Lucindo, and sat down in the chair opposite him. The dying lilies stank.
We stared at each other for a long moment, then reached a mutual, unspoken decision to start, at least, by continuing to play our adopted parts.
“What can I do for you, my daughter?” asked Lucindo. “Is your grief still so strong?”
“Not just my grief,” I said. “I could take that directly to the goddess to be healed. It is my need to know how my friend died that is unsatisfied. I had hoped you would clarify the circumstances for me.”
“I am sure Diana gave you my message,” he said.
“She told me you had found out Silvano was at the caves on the Wednesday night,” I said.
“That is so.”
“But after that? Where did he go after that?”
“There were two men with him. They left together. We may assume they were responsible for his death. Have you not found out anything more in your town?”
“Yes,” I said. “And I don’t believe Silvano was at the Lion Mountain on Wednesday night.”
“You are saying that what I am telling you is not true?” asked Lucindo, stiffening.
“I mean no offence. I think you may have been misinformed.”
“I don’t need to be informed. I see,” he exclaimed, holding his elegant hand across his brow.
He spoke with such force that I was disconcerted. Even if he was lying, did he actually believe he was a powerful medium? Or was it simply that he couldn’t stand being contradicted?
“Then what happened after that?” I asked. “If you see can so much, please look further.”
“I have seen, of course,” he said, without the same conviction. “But you are not prepared to hear what happened to Silvano.”
Lucindo’s patience – and mine – were coming to an end. The only hope I had left (the only real hope I’d had on coming back to this place) was to provoke an admission from him by making him angry.
“I need to know,” I said. “That’s why I’m here. And what’s more, I intend to find out. Do you want to help me or don’t you?”
“My duty is to help you,” he said. “I therefore advise you to search no further. The man is dead. Let that be the end.”
“That’s what you want me to do. You don’t want anyone asking what goes on at the caves. What General Ribera has to do with the drug trade, for example.”
Lucindo’s face went an ugly purple colour, and his voice squeaked when he answered.
“OK,” he said. “If you’re so determined to know everything we’ll satisfy you. And I hope you like what you get.”
He stood up and went to the side of the altar, where he must have pushed a button because a loud ringing noise started up all through the house. Almost immediately two tough young men came into the temple.
“Arrest this woman,” said Lucindo, dramatizing still. “I’ll call the general to ask what he wants done with her.”
The two men took me roughly by an arm each and marched me away. María looked a little less forlorn when I turned to salute her with my eyes. Lucindo had sat down again and was glaring at the marble floor. The men shoved me into a small sitting-room and locked the door. I sat down on the floor in meditation position, breathing deeply to calm my anger and try to understand the irrevocableness of what I’d done. It wasn’t very long before the men called me out again and led me downstairs. Diana’s gold-bronze Mercedes was standing at the door. There was no sign of Mimi.
The driver opened the back door of the car for me without speaking. I had a bad moment as we drove out of the gate and passed Alvaro in his jeep. I looked at him with no sign of recognition, hoping he would understand I was being carried along by the course of events and didn’t want to involve him. He looked worried, but I couldn’t concern myself with his reaction any further.
The air-conditioning in the Mercedes was on high, and I felt cold in my linen suit, but I told myself that from now on I was going to have to accept all tribulations without complaint, and this was likely to be the least of them. Nor would I ask unnecessary questions – I would find out where I was going when I got there.
I returned to my meditation as the car drove quite a distance up the south side of the valley and stopped finally in the porch of a large, white-painted building in extensive grounds. I recognized the officers’ club; it was designed by a famous architect. I had never been inside it. The driver opened the door for me again and told me to follow him. The high entrance-hall and wide, red-carpeted staircase were deserted. We ascended and came to a door to the left of the stair-well that was guarded by soldiers. My guide spoke to them in a low voice.
“The general has not arrived yet,” said one of them to me directly, “but you will please come in and wait for him.”
He held the door open for me to pass, and I walked into a room even bigger than the temple at the pink villa, and like it with one wall all windows, shaded by Venetian blinds. In this room the place of the altar, at the end, was occupied by a huge gilt-legged table, being used as a desk, with a throne-like chair behind it. A set of filing cabinets and a computer on a separate table stood to one side, looking out of place.
There was no one in the room. The soldier led me to the table and asked me to sit down on a much smaller chair in front of it. The whole of the wall to my right, opposite the windows, was occupied by a huge mural painting, with allegorical scenes representing Venezuela, in the company of her great men, as Justice and Plenty. The part nearest me, overshadowing the desk and anyone who sat there, showed María Leona, with an escort of fierce, bronze-bodied indio warriors and half enveloped in a leopard skin, flying impetuously across a blue and white, flower-strewn sky. In her streaming black hair, her long-limbed body and even her vehement expression she greatly resembled Diana, though the paintings must have been done before she was born.
I had plenty of time to study the mural, since the general didn’t appear for almost an hour. The soldier didn’t object when I got up and walked about, and coffee was brought to me on a silver tray. I was sitting on the chair again, breathing deeply to calm my growing impatience, when a door opened in the wall behind the table and the general stepped lightly into the room. I had expected a few moments to compose myself while he walked from the main door, and to find him immediately in front of me was disconcerting; it was no doubt intended to be. There was the hint of an ironic smile around his eyes, as if his impression of my naiveté had been confirmed.
What he said, however, was “Excuse me for keeping you waiting. This is a busy time,” and he allowed the smile to take over his face for a moment.
“I’m sure it is,” I answered, on the same polite tone.
It annoyed me to find that the man was still attractive to me. His indio heritage was very strong – naked, he would look dangerous and beautiful like the caciques in the mural beside us.
He signed to the soldier to leave us, sat down opposite me and said, “I hear you are determined to know what happened to your friend Silvano.”
“My friend and your daughter’s friend,” I said.
The ironic glimmer was there again. “If you like,” he said. “Diana didn’t exactly treat him as a friend in the end.”
“Oh, didn’t she?” I said foolishly. My heart had started to beat faster.
“We’re here to speak clearly, aren’t we?” he said. “It’s you who have insisted on knowing the truth.”
“Of course.” With an effort I got control of my nerves.
“I believe that Diana did not originally intend harm to Silvano. But he became a danger to us.”
“How could he be a danger to you?”
“He had been at the caves at the Lion Mountain. He knew our plans.”
“But surely a lot of other people knew too.”
“Yes, but they’re on our side. Silvano was foolish enough to disagree with us and threaten to make public what he knew.”
“Are you going to tell me what it was he objected to?”
“Why not? First of all the coup. I think I told you it was I who had the army infiltrated and arranged for the uprising of that fool Gálvez.”
“Is he really such a fool?” I asked quietly. “He seems to have been successful in a lot of places.”
He gave me a scornful glare. “Mere temporary setbacks. I will win in the end.”
“So the people at the caves knew you were backing the coup?” I asked.
“Those who are capable of understanding such things. They all knew I was going to take over the country. That’s where our ritual support comes from.” He turned to María Leona on the wall, and his ironic, self-assured attitude was suddenly replaced by a manic exultation.
It struck me with an irony of my own that I had no experience in dealing with madmen of this calibre. Was it a kind of devotion he felt? Was he worshipping himself reflected in the favour of the goddess who looked so like his daughter? What other gulfs might there be in his personality? My personal plight apart, it was horrifying to think of the country falling into his hands. The evil muttering I had heard in Martínez’ house and at other times in the air around me swelled in a crescendo; I couldn’t make out words, but it was full of a kind of hunger and a mean laughter with flashes of violence.
Time seemed to have stopped while I listened to air and the general stared at the wall. It was necessary to start it moving again, to reach the end I had been aiming for.
“So you had Silvano killed because he disapproved of your plans?” I asked, tentatively.
“It wasn’t as simple as that,” he said, coming down to earth. “There was the question of the drug trade. You must understand that such an operation requires a lot of money, and we’ve been financing it with cocaine. There’s a depot in the caves.”
“I heard that Silvano had got involved in carrying drugs himself.”
“He did to start with – he seemed to think it was an adventure. How do you know about this, by the way?”
“From things that have happened in Mucutay. There are always people who talk.”
The general frowned. “Well, being involved should have kept him quiet, but he said he was going to go to the newspapers and take the consequences.”
“He told you that?”
“He told Diana. He said he was sorry he’d dirtied his hands with us.” The general spoke with disgust.
“But there were only a few days to go to the coup anyway. Why didn’t you just hold him somewhere so he couldn’t talk?”
“Ah! That’s where Diana took over.”
“It was Diana that wanted him dead?”
“But why should she?” I was losing control again. “I thought she cared for him.”
“Like you did?” The general’s tone was almost kind, which – absurd though I knew it was – made it harder to subdue my emotions. “No, no,” he went on. “Diana is no ordinary woman. Would it shock you if I told you she is my consort?”
It didn’t shock me in the sense he meant, but it jolted me back to a degree of detachment.
“No,” I said. “I understood as much at your house.”
“Then try to understand also that she felt she must get rid of Silvano for my sake. She did it for me,” he repeated, and the manic gleam was on his face again. “In a relationship like ours, no sacrifice can be considered too great.”
Sacrifice for who, I wondered. I was beginning to feel very tired. “How did she… get rid of him?” I asked.
“You can’t expect me to tell you the details. I don’t have time. But Diana will tell you. She has made quite an occasion of his death. You will see her. And him. You didn’t expect to see Silvano again, did you?”
“Not any more,” I said.
“You’ll be taken to where he is. Of course you’ll never leave the place again.”
I caught my breath and then said, since it struck me, “Well, I suppose that’s a guarantee that you’ve been telling me the truth.”
“Of course I’m telling you the truth. So you accept the consequences?”
“At this point I don’t have any choice, do I?”
“No. I’m sorry, really. An elegant woman like yourself… But as you see…”
“All right. I’ve asked for it.”
“Good. You’re proud. I admire pride.” The general got up abruptly and made me a slight bow before going out again by the door behind him.
No one else came in, and I went on sitting in front of the desk, feeling more numb than anything else. I couldn’t imagine what the general had meant by saying I would see Silvano again, and when I got a momentary picture of an embalmed body in a coffin it seemed better not to try to. After a while I found I was staring at fierce María in the mural, and I said to her, “I hardly know you in that guise, but you are still the goddess and therefore you can help me too. Help me to be a warrior woman, even if it is only to go to my death with dignity. And to face whatever it is I still have to see.”
With that I felt better and began to think about what the general had told me. I had some of the explanations I wanted. My doubts of Diana’s sanity were justified, though I still couldn’t see how she could have been literally responsible for Silvano’s death. I even had a reason for thinking better of Silvano than I had been. I wondered if he’d known the danger he was in, and if he’d been afraid. Even if he was, he hadn’t let fear rule his actions. He would probably have thought, till the last minute, that he could still escape somehow.
After some time I needed to pee, so I got up and pushed on the door the general had used. It was locked on the other side. I walked the length of the room and opened the big door. The guards were still standing there, and the one who had accompanied me earlier held out his arm to bar me from going any further.
I said, “I would like to go to the bathroom please.”
The guard hesitated, then said, “Come with me.”
He led me down a corridor to a lavatory and stayed outside while I went in. I peed and turned on the basin tap while I looked out of the window, which was at the back of the building. There was a fire-escape just outside and no one in sight. There were bushes I could hide in as soon as I reached the ground. I felt quite certain that I could get away. I will never know if the feeling was true or false because I didn’t try. Not because I was afraid, but because I was not afraid.
As soon as I returned to the big room the driver of the Mercedes came in and said, “We’re leaving.”
In the hall below many men were coming and going now, all in a hurry. I would have liked to ask the driver, out of sheer curiosity, what was going on, but I was sure he wouldn’t tell me, so I didn’t. I did ask him, when we were in the car, “Is it a long journey?”
He answered, curtly, “Several hours”, so exhausted as I was I settled myself in a corner and went to sleep.
Another one into the vortex, drawn by her misdirected passion. And her sharp intuition – she could see too much already. Even so, the surprise she has coming is harsh. Diana’s will, the will of the Goddess she says. Well, it doesn’t concern me. I have work to do. An insurrection to wind up.
I didn’t recognize the landscape when I woke. It was mountainous, but different from the Andes – the hills were of bizarre shapes, some almost square, and the vegetation was more tropical. We must have driven east behind the coastal range, I decided, and we were on a country road with a rough surface.
“How far are we from the sea?” I tried on the driver, and to my surprise he answered, “Not too far. You can see it from that hill up there. Feeling like a dip?”
“It would be nice,” I said, wondering why he had become so friendly, until I realized he must think I was beyond hope of escape or rescue now. He’d be thinking I’d never bathe in the sea again.
I refused to dwell on this, and didn’t speak again until we came round a bend in the road and saw what looked like an ancient castle, dominating the valley in front of us from the top of the truncated cone of a steep hill.
“That’s the place,” said the driver.
“Is it old?” I couldn’t resist asking.
“Part of it was an old prison. The general built on to it. It was a big job carting all that stone.”
It must have been, I thought, as we came closer. The castle was five stories high and oval in shape, with crenelations round the top. The stone was well cut and the walls smooth and solid; there were no doors on the side from which we were approaching. We wound round the side of the valley and up the hill. The last bends brought us under the walls of the castle and round to its front entrance, which overlooked the valley from near the edge of a sheer drop of hundreds of feet.
We drove through the stone archway into the courtyard. It was almost cold in the depths of it, and as I got out of the car I looked up at the sky and saw a ring of armed soldiers on the rampart-roof looking down at me. From inside, the castle looked less ancient, and less solid, the walls being partly concrete and the courtyard being so big that it seemed there couldn’t be much space inside the buildings. I followed the driver inside, through a door in the middle of the wing further from the road.
We entered a corridor running across the wing, with doors leading off it and a window at the end. The driver knocked at a door marked Ten.te Marcos Geldman; we heard “Come in” and entered a small, tidy office lit by a lamp on the desk. Lieutenant Geldman was fat and balding. He appeared to be doing nothing.
“This is the guest,” said the driver.
Geldman looked at me with his matt brown eyes and said, “What do you expect me to do with her?”
“Haven’t you been instructed?” asked the driver.
“She’s supposed to meet the general’s daughter and see the, er, statue.”
“Take her up then. She’ll be dealt with later.”
The driver led me up many flights of a steep dark staircase and out into a gallery running the length of the top floor on the courtyard side; he stopped at a door in the middle of the gallery and said, uncomfortably I thought, “It’s in there.” He was walking away fast as I opened the door.
The late afternoon sun was shining so fiercely through the windows opposite as I entered the room that I was dazzled and my first impression was vague. It was another big room, but irregular, as the outside wall was a segment of the stone oval of the castle itself and the other walls bulged too. There were two windows, and between the windows was a darkness, which had the shape of the top of an altar it seemed, and on the altar, which projected below like a stage, was a figure – surely not a crucifix? – no, a man dancing, suspended in a leap.
My eyes were adjusting to the light and I went closer. Everything – what my captors had said, my own intuition, the first evidence of my eyes – had already told me that the dancing figure was Silvano, but until I stood in front of it and recognized piece by piece the features of the face and the lines of the naked body I was pretending I didn’t know. And then I felt a shock of horror and acknowledgment, hot and cold at the same time, that spread all through my body like an orgasm – that was also an orgasm – and left me gasping and shuddering.
The preservation of the body was perfect. There was a dark line round the wrist where the severed hand had been returned to its place (my ring had gone), and the set of the head, turned obliquely to the front while the body was side on, made me wonder if it had some flaw at the back, but the dynamic pose was not obstructed. The dancer was naturally suspended in air.
Suddenly lights came on around the peaked structure that framed the altar and among the plants that formed a background to the figure. I looked round to see if someone had come into the room, but I was still alone with the body. A trickling sound began and I saw water run out of the stone wall from a cleft at the height of the dancer’s head and fall to a pool under him, making the branches of the small trees quiver on its way. The illusion was immense. It was the dancing god at play in his mother’s sanctuary, the running water, the dripping leaves, the rare light – a mingling of the sun’s rays and the intense white and golden bulbs on the altar – all seeming to receive their movement from the exuberant leap of the dancer. His arms were flung apart with careless grace, one behind him and the other above his head; his legs were separate also, and bent, the toes elegantly pointed. His fine, strong neck was lengthened by the slightly thrown-back position of his head, and his lips were parted as if he was singing to his dance. Even his eyes seemed to shine, with happiness, kindness, sweetness, a flush of fulfilment in which he invited everyone to share.
I knelt down, hardly aware that I did, before this vision of the eternal son in whom compassion and beauty are inseparable and who therefore is the end of the heart’s journey. Never while Silvano was alive had he represented so completely for me the divine principle…
Suddenly I understood what I was thinking. My exultation and worship turned to horror. I jumped up and peered at Silvano’s body and wondered what they had pumped into the flesh and what they had stuffed it with and how they had bent its dead limbs to that position. I realized that the face had been torn round the sockets into which glass eyes had been forced, and the organs of sound were extinguished inside the artificially propped-open mouth, and a metal bar had been stuck into the side to fix the dancer in his leap. The appearance of lift and movement was nothing but a cheat; this thing was no picture and exemplary presence of joyful becoming in the great vortex – it was a poor victim, not even allowed to decay in peace but forced to represent stagnation and lies. Its immobility was frightful.
The anger I felt at whoever had done this was tempered by self-recognition. I also had been guilty of making of a live man an idol. There had been moments in the past when I had wanted to hold Silvano still, even if it was only to see him steadily with the eyes of love. I heard for a moment the dogs barking in my dream, and wondered if a part of myself had seen his death as a kind of justice.
But I would never have had him killed in fact and deed, and stuck him on an altar, and someone had been cruel enough to do that. Diana. From what her father had said, this was her handiwork.
On cue, the door behind me opened and Diana came into the room. I turned to face her. She was wearing a long, clinging red dress and at first sight was as imposing as ever. But her hair, which was tied back with a simple red ribbon, didn’t look clean, and her face was drawn. Only her eyes were made up and the cat effect was muted.
“You took it quite well,” she said, and her voice was strained too, and harsh.
“You were watching me?”
“Yes, from the hole in that wall.”
There was, in fact, a gap between stones in the wall to which she was pointing. I said nothing. It was humiliating but not surprising nor worth wasting time over.
“I liked it when you knelt down,” she said. “He’s marvellous, isn’t he?” I couldn’t tell if she was taunting me or if she truly expected me to join her in praise of the idol she had created. Her own admiration of it looked real enough, and mad too.
“It’s an impressive image,” I said, “but I preferred him alive.”
“He was a nuisance alive. And he insulted me.”
“He insulted you?”
“Playing so hard to get. And then refusing to obey me.”
“He did have previous commitments,” I said steadily.
“To an old woman like you? Nonsense! And what about all his other women?”
“Maybe he realized a relationship with you would have to be exclusive.”
“You said it,” she said, and seemed appeased, though I could see now she was trembling slightly all over.
I didn’t want to quarrel with her. I suspected the duration of this conversation was all the time left to me, and there were, besides, still questions I wanted answered.
And mixed with my anger and revulsion at what she had done was the fellow feeling I couldn’t evade, and pity for her as well. She was a ruin.
“I can see you don’t think much of me as a rival,” I said, “but I was close to Silvano too. And I would like to understand how and why you brought him to this.”
“Do you think you could understand?” She spoke scornfully.
“Why not? Women can understand each other.”
At first I thought I had provoked one of her furious reactions. She tensed and scowled and swung away from me; but I saw in her eyes as she stared at the altar that she was fighting a hurt that surprised her.
Finally she drew herself up straight, as if to emphasize her height above me, and said, “I’m my father’s lover.”
“I know that,” I said.
“Doesn’t it shock you?”
“No. But I think it must be very difficult for you.”
I expected her to burst out in denial of this, but she went on looking almost wistfully at the altar.
“Does it mean you can’t love anyone else?” I asked.
“Of course. I almost fell in love with Silvano,” she went on after a pause, “but he wasn’t worthy of it.”
“So you sacrificed him for your father?”
“He had to be got out of the way.” The softness went out of her. “I planned it. And I had him brought here.”
“Why?” I asked, since it mattered more to me than “how”.
“You shouldn’t have to ask! He’s a god now, on my father’s side. A warrior god – he’s dancing because triumph is so easy for him. All our enemies are under his feet. Of course they aren’t real warriors – only copies – even Gálvez – especially Gálvez – you said yourself he looks like him. He is the real warrior…”
She was raving. I sought for some way to appeal to her.
“You’re a priestess of María Leona,” I said. “Isn’t she the mother of all warriors?”
“María is on our side,” said Diana, “and she keeps her warriors under control.”
“My María is gentler,” I said. “She lets them follow their own will. Even if they hurt themselves. And her.”
Diana gave me a despising look. “No wonder Silvano treated you so badly,” she said.
“Did he? He made me very happy, often.”
This time her fury rose and flashed out. “Well now you’re going to pay for it,” she said. “You’re going to die. You won’t like that.”
“How soon will it be?”
“Oh, we’ll let you live today. You must join in our rites here this evening.”
And she left the room.
I went to a window and looked out. The sun was low in the sky, about to go down behind the hills at the end of the valley. There was no one in sight, not a house, not a cow, only a solitary white heron flapping slowly from left to right across my view. For a moment I flew with it, in the freedom of the air, and when I returned to myself I felt tears starting. “That’s no good,” I said aloud. “There’s no way out. You’d better prepare to die.” But I couldn’t believe, not really believe, that I was going to die. I watched the sun pour its fire slowly behind the hill and the valley go quiet. Then I turned back to the room and its terrible burden.
The body was still rigid in its fixed position. I didn’t want to look at it any more. The sun had gone and I found a light switch on the altar frame that let me turn off the lamps around it. Then it was in dusk, and easier to ignore. I sat down against a wall to think over the answers it had cost me so much to find. I discovered they didn’t want, or even need, to be thought about. They were already settling of their own accord into a pattern which would reveal itself in time. “If there is time,” I said, and answered myself, “And if there isn’t, it hardly matters.” I meditated for a while, emptying my mind. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t even tried the door to see if I was a prisoner in that room.
The door was unlocked. I went out into the gallery. There were more vehicles than in the morning in the courtyard below and a noise of feet and voices seemed to come from all around. I tried the next door along and found a small bathroom, which I used, and drank some water. The door beyond that opened into a narrow, irregularly shaped space, in which was an open wardrobe with cloaks and dresses hanging in it – Diana’s priestess robes, evidently – a switchboard, and a chair against the stone wall on the left. I sat down and looked through the hole in front of me. If I leant well forward I could see almost the whole of the altar room.
It was not much more than curiosity (what could I do but explore the surroundings?) that had brought me to the hole, but what I saw as I was about to withdraw made my heart race with alarm. The door to the “temple” opened and Miguelito entered. He looked all round the room; he even went peering up to the altar as if I might be hiding among the plants. He spun round with his fists and face clenched with rage and strode out of the room again.
I had gained a short reprieve, but I had no idea what to do next. I heard Miguelito shouting for Diana and his steps receding. I felt trapped in the small room, and I couldn’t see it made any difference where they found me, so I went back out to the gallery, shutting the door behind me. Almost immediately Diana and Miguelito erupted from the top of the stairs. They stopped dead on seeing me standing there.
“Where were you?” asked Diana.
“In the bathroom.”
“You fool!” exclaimed Diana, turning to Miguelito, who shrank away from her but shook his fist at me. He was two heads shorter than Diana and looked absurd in his macho role. She glanced down at him and back at me.
Could it be that the spark of amusement that passed between Diana and me at that moment saved my life? Had it been a deception, telling me I could live that day? Or had something made her change her mind since? There was tension in the shouts I could hear in the well of the castle below us. Anyway, she said now, “You must be hungry. Come down and have supper.”
Her politeness was surreal. We went down to a dining-room on the first floor, the place, I thought, where officers and visitors would eat. It had no decorations, but the wooden tables and chairs were well made. Diana sent Miguelito off to sit alone, and she herself fetched our plates of food from a hatch in the wall. She could have been poisoning me, but that didn’t seem worse than what Miguelito might do to me – preferable probably. There was pea soup and scrambled egg with arepas. I found I had an appetite.
“The food’s not very good here, I’m afraid,” she said. “It’s a long way to bring everything.”
“Does your father own this place?” I asked. Why not make conversation.
“Yes,” she said. “He bought it many years ago now. Of course he’s done a lot of work on it since.”
“Perhaps you spent holidays here when you were a child?”
“No, there’s nothing to do here. We used to go to the beach.”
“I bet you’re a good swimmer,” I said.
“I was. I was going to be trained for the Olympics, but I became a dancer instead.”
“Were your parents happy about that?”
“My father was happy. We got rid of my mother early on. Would you like coffee?”
“Yes please. There’s a lot of noise outside, isn’t there?”
At that moment General Ribera himself entered the dining-room, and Diana got up and joined him without another word to me. The general ignored me. They sat down at a table on the other side of the room and talked intensely. I kept my eyes down, because I didn’t want to spy on the Riberas, or to cross glances with Miguelito who was glaring at me with undiluted hate.
Soon the general called my name – “Señora Helena” – and signed to me to join them. Three cups of coffee were brought and the general’s almost full plate cleared away.
“So, are you satisfied with what you have found?” the general asked me. He was not gloating over me; he sounded simply curious.
“Yes, I am,” I said. “I have seen what I had to see. I can’t pretend I like it, but in a way I am satisfied, yes.”
The general’s black eyes were fixed on me as I spoke, and after a moment he nodded. I knew he’d heard me, but I had no idea what he was thinking.
Diana, looking more strained than ever, stood up and said it was time for the evening rites.
The general said he would not be coming.
Diana said “But…” and went no further. Her eyes were imploring him.
There was a roar of engines from below and I looked round nervously.
This seemed to amuse the general. “You never know where it’ll come from you, do you?” he said. “I’m in a tight place myself at the moment, to be honest with you, but you needn’t doubt I will prevail in the end.”
He got up and left the dining-room so fast he seemed to vanish into the air. Diana gripped the edge of the table; her face was livid and I thought she might faint, but she pulled herself together and signed to Miguelito, and the three of us went out together
The roar and bustle was coming from the ramparts now as well as the courtyard, but as we made our way to the altar room we were joined by several officers who exchanged half bows with Diana. There were others in the room, one of them the fat Lieutenant Geldman, who blinked when he saw me. Diana vanished for a moment at the door and returned wearing a gold-fringed purple cloak over her red dress and a gold crown on her head; she had let her hair down but not combed it. The lights round the altar had come on, and some spotlights too, high in the corners of the room. The dancer – Silvano – looked starkly dramatic, the plants no longer his garden estate but a decorative background to his defiant, warlike leap. This was not the son of the mother who had shaken me with his sweetness, but the warrior on his own, aggressive. He also looked more dead.
I was standing to the right of the altar, not too close. I suddenly glanced round and saw Miguelito behind me – he was not on my heels but there was no one between us. I moved up among the group. If my death was to be part of this evening’s rite I couldn’t stop it, but I wouldn’t make it easy for the assassin to clobber me.
Diana, at the altar with her back to us, was muttering prayers – or curses – under her breath. She raised her arms and the people in the room stood to attention. She started to intone, in a loud voice with an edge of hysteria:
“Dancer without boundaries
great and powerful fighter
dead in my father’s name
alive by María’s power –
in your body are all fighters
in your body are all rebels –
through you we are invincible –
as the sky’s dome holds the winds
your skin contains their strength –
our enemies dissolve in you
none will escape you
the whirlwind will capture them…”
Diana was working herself into a frenzy, probably a trance. The other worshippers I glanced at, however, were not with her in spirit. They were listening, as I also was, to a noise outside that was becoming louder and louder, and which presently could not be mistaken for a whirlwind or anything other than a helicopter above our heads. Shots came, apparently from the rampart, then louder fire and the helicopter engine going steadily away.
At the first shots the officers had turned to run out of the room, but Diana whirled round with a grating shriek and the mad authority in her was enough to stop them. She stared at us all for a long moment; a glimmer of understanding played in her eyes, but before it could deflate her a new exultation overcame her and she rushed out screaming “The time has come,” with everyone else behind her. Miguelito too, though he looked back at me like a carnivorous ape robbed of its prey. I locked the door from inside.
The first part of that fierce battle I followed only by its sounds, shots and explosions and yells, and from the glimpses of helicopters I had from the window – it was bright moonlight outside. I soon heard planes going over as well, and the crashes became louder. We were being bombed. I was aware of fear but incapable of making any decision, such as opening the door and trying to get further down in the building. I huddled on the floor in a corner against the outside wall, waiting to see what would happen.
An immeasurable time later – it was probably a few minutes – the wall on the courtyard side fell away with a rumbling roar, taking with it most of the roof and floor of the room. Silvano and I were left on a ledge between the outer stone wall and the first row of arches above and below us sustaining the rampart, suspended above an abyss that at first was filled with dust stained yellow by a light penetrating it from the direction of the entrance. The dust started to clear and someone fired several shots into Silvano’s body, bringing it down. I must have been out of sight in my corner.
I crawled a little way toward Silvano, but the floor shook and I had already seen enough. The body had been split open in several places. Inside the cured hide was an armature and stuffing – some of it looked like newspaper. The skull was the only solid part. Half uncovered, it lolled backward toward me with bulging glass eyes and no jaw.
It was not Silvano – Silvano had been gone from those pitiful remains long ago – but at that moment my lips sketched the goodbye I hadn’t said.
I looked down the wall beside me – the stone still looked solid enough. There were metal brackets in it down to the next floor, of which a piece remained on my side. Without giving myself time to think I climbed down. A beam fallen aslant let me slide down one storey more; the jagged ledge I landed on gave way slowly and I fell, expecting to drop into the void, but I came down hard on a heap of rubble precariously lodged across the ends of two broken beams still stuck in the wall. I crawled down it to the arch of a doorway in the stone, and then I was stuck, still two storeys up, but in a steady perch. I sat down, to be as invisible as I could.
From where I was I could see all that was left of the castle. All walls that were not stone had collapsed, and some of the stonework too, especially at the entrance, which was now a huge gap from top to bottom of the fabric. The bombing had done its work; the planes had gone, and instead there were two tanks in the narrow space that remained almost free of rubble down the centre of the courtyard, one near each end, with fierce lights on them that engraved the whole scene in stark glare and shadow. The fighting continued locally. Pieces of the rampart were still in place, and soldiers of the general were shooting from above at the tanks and the men on and around them. Little groups were firing at each other across the rubble. There were dead bodies everywhere – I had not realized there were so many people in the place.
It was nearly over. A daring invader climbed up the broken wall at the entrance and swept the rampart with a machine-gun. Bodies fell down into the yard. One nearly hit a man crouching behind a pile of beams – he jumped up and was shot on the instant. Only one gun continued to fire from above, at regular intervals, as if mindlessly. The firing below became sporadic.
Suddenly there was shouting from the back of the yard, where a solid stone piece of the ground floor was still intact. A small figure broke out of the knot of men there and started to run, holding a knife in his hand. Miguelito. He was shot in the back after a few paces. Then two men dragged Lieutenant Geldman across the yard and pushed him into the first tank.
The leader of the invaders shouted through a megaphone to the general’s men to surrender if they wanted to live. First one man, then another – there couldn’t have been twenty in all – came out into the open with their hands raised. The gun on the roof was silent now. The men were disarmed and herded into a group between the tanks. There was a pause while no more men came forward.
In the almost silence, strange after the din of bombs and battle, another figure broke away from the back of the yard, running powerfully, a tall woman’s figure in a red dress split up to the thighs, barefoot, her purple cloak stretched out behind her, her arms spread wide, her long black hair floating round her head, her face an immobile mask of horror. She ran past the first tank and its lights went out. A loud gasp – Aaaah! – went up from all the men; the first tank’s lights came on again and the second one went dark as Diana sped by it.
At the broken gateway she stopped, looking round her with jerky movements of her Medusa head; then she turned and ran back again, to the middle of the courtyard, where she spun round and round on herself making the powerful lights of the tanks blink on and off like torches in the hands of a restless child. All the men stood still and silent, hypnotized by the apparition, as I was – hypnotized and in awe. It was a final rite of total possession, horrifying yet weirdly beautiful, as Diana’s magnificent body was driven and shaken by the powers in her.
She ran again to the back of the courtyard and leant on the wall for a moment, her fingers clawing at the stone. Then she flung away and ran straight at the tank nearest her. I could already feel the smash of her body against the heavy metal – I imagined the tank bursting into flames. But at the last moment the leading officer stepped in front of her and with a jolt of her head backwards she shied off.
For a few seconds she seemed bewildered and jumped from side to side in a kind of desperate dance. And then she knew what to do and ran again, faster than ever, powerful and beautiful, out through the broken front of the castle and over the precipice beyond.
Some men ran out behind her, but I had seen how long that drop was and I knew she must be killed. I felt tears start, but it was not the moment to indulge in pity. I still had to come out alive myself. Since nothing better occurred to me, I shouted “Help!”
At once someone yelled “There’s another one,” and weapons were pointed at me from all over the yard.
“No, I’m not,” I shouted.
The leader turned a searchlight on me and asked, “Who are you?”
“A prisoner of the general.”
The guns were lowered slowly as my appearance convinced the soldiers I was harmless. I must have looked pathetic, grey with dust and with my suit in tatters.
“Hang on,” shouted the leader. “We’ll get you down.”
Ropes and strong arms brought me down to the ground. My legs wouldn’t hold me up and I collapsed on to a piece of broken wall while the leader, a youngish man who introduced himself as Captain Márquez, gave me rum to drink from a canteen.
“Viva Gálvez!” I toasted him, having finally made sure, from a small flag painted on the side of the nearest tank, that they were in fact Gálvez’s men. There had been no way to tell that the invaders were not the general’s own men turning against him. Now I could feel safe.
“Viva Gálvez!” he answered. “Were there other prisoners here too?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They only brought me here today.”
“You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Yes,” I said. “They forgot about me when the attack started.”
“We had no idea there was anyone here besides General Ribera’s people. We were going to destroy the castle completely and kill everyone from the air.”
“Oh! And why didn’t you?”
“Because after all we wanted to take the general alive and try him.”
“Did you get him?”
“No.” He looked abashed. “He escaped.”
“Are you sure?”
“He’s not here. The only place anyone could have been hiding is in that room where his daughter was, and he wasn’t there.”
“He might be dead under a heap of rubble.”
“He might,” he said doubtfully, “but I think he ran for it.”
“You’re probably right,” I said, and added more quietly, “and he left her behind.”
“Are you sorry for that witch?”
“Her father treated her monstrously.”
“Her father is the devil himself,” he said. “You just relax now, and we’ll get you away from here soon.”
Leaving Diana behind was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life but I had to do it. Was it María that made me look back when she jumped? Most of the time I was watching my feet on the track in the dark, but I turned suddenly and saw her rush out and leap over the edge. I could clearly see her hair spread out round her head against the light from inside the castle. She didn’t shout. Her long, sweet body (I’ll think it through once and never again) fell straight down – two hundred metres, that drop must be – and smashed on the rocks at the bottom. If she wasn’t dead of shock before she hit the ground, she died on the instant. And her skull burst and her bones fractured and her flesh compacted. Did she fall on her back or her breast? Who will pick her up? Motherless child. Father’s pet, father’s lover, father’s inspiration – till things got out of hand. Where I’m going there’s no place for her.
The Galvistas took me back to Mucutay. At the airport, the group of officers I arrived with were cheered getting off the plane, and I came in for some curious and admiring looks as I walked through the terminal building. Julio – I had called him from Caracas – was waiting for me with the jeep.
After hugs and exclamations I asked him how Bald Master was.
“He’s very bad,” he said. “I didn’t know whether to tell you right away, but since you ask… Maybe we’d better go to him now or you might not find him alive.”
“Is he conscious?”
“Some of the time, at least. He might be meditating. He’s asked for you several times.”
“Of course we must go to him.”
Bald Master was a dirty white colour and shrunk. He was lying on his back on his futon, scarcely breathing. He could have been in coma, till I called his name quietly, and he opened his eyes, looking directly into mine.
“You found him,” he whispered.
“Yes,” I said. His eyes were dark and deep. Before he shut them again I saw through them into endless spaces lit by the sweeping orbits of stars.
“You found what you were looking for too,” I said softly. “You found it. You’re there.”
He neither spoke nor opened his eyes again. We stayed near him – Julio, Agueda, a few of his disciples and I – until late afternoon, when we realized he was simply not breathing any more.
Then we all broke down and cried and hugged each other and went to and fro between Bald Master’s room and Agueda’s kitchen, preparing food and drink for the wake and telling each other stories about the man and his teachings.
“How should we bury him?” someone asked Julio.
“He told us what he wanted,” said Julio. “Not to be buried at all. He wants to be put out on a hillside and left there, in a remote spot.”
“But that’s awful,” said one of the disciples.
“He’ll have had his reasons,” said Julio.
“What if someone finds him?”
“We must choose the place carefully. And he doesn’t want anyone to go back there for a year.”
“Well, if that’s what he wanted…”
I could hear the disciples muttering among themselves about Tibetan customs, and I knew Bald Master would have been amused.
“Do you want to go home now?” asked Julio, when it got dark. “You must be worn out.”
“I had time to rest in Caracas. But I’d like to tell you some of what happened, if you can take it in.”
“I can’t wait to hear it. Come upstairs.”
While the wake went on across the road (many people came during the night) I told Julio – with Agueda popping in from time to time to exclaim at details – how I had reached the end of the search and stayed alive too.
“There are still gaps,” said Julio, after I finished.
“Yes,” I said. “How he actually died.”
“Do you want to know?”
“Yes, I think I still do.”
“Well I know who can tell us,” said Julio; and he told me about his journey with Alpidio and his friends to the Lion Mountain, looking for Miguelito. Miguelito was not there, of course (Diana was keeping him beside her as a body guard), but they had met El Gato and Pedro instead, hiding out with friends from Mucutay, and half cajoled, half forced from them the admission that it was Miguelito who had murdered Yovany and Silvano too.
“They wouldn’t say any more,” said Julio. “But now that Miguelito’s dead…”
Finally I fell asleep where I was sitting, on Julio’s divan, and woke up in daylight stretched out with a blanket over me and my shoes on the floor beside me.
Little Conchita put her head round the door and disappeared again; Julio came in with coffee.
“Shall we go and talk to El Gato now?” he asked. “People will still be coming to say goodbye to Bald Master all morning at least.”
“OK,” I said. “Let’s finish putting it all together, and then we can start letting go.”
I lit a candle of gratitude to María in her temple before we went into the barrio to El Gato’s shed of a house. He was at home. He looked scared when he saw us, but Julio said, “It’s OK. You don’t have to be afraid any more. Miguelito is dead.”
“Is that true?” El Gato asked, lifting his long head.
“It is,” I said. “I saw him die.”
“How did he die?”
“He was shot. In the back.”
“Right! The fucking bastard!” said El Gato, and opened the door wide to let us in.
We sat at his tin table and he brought beer for all of us.
“Death to tyrants!” he toasted, and drank off half a bottle.
“Death to tyrants!” I echoed. “But people have died who were not tyrants, too, and we would like to know finally what happened to them.”
El Gato sat staring for a full minute at the table top while we gave him time to think. Then he looked up and his face was sad and perplexed.
“I loved Silvano,” he said. “I loved him very much. He was nice to me.”
“So?” asked Julio.
“But Miguelito said he was going to inform on us. And that bitch Diana promised us a lot of money.”
“So you helped to kill him?”
“On the day, I said I wasn’t going. But Miguelito said if I didn’t they’d kill me too.”
“What day was that?”
“It was Tuesday. I remember it was Tuesday because you already asked about it. Miguelito told Silvano to meet us at the Chama bar because there were accounts to settle. Silvano thought he meant money because he didn’t want to go along with us any more. Then Miguelito said he’d better come and see what we had at the water-works before he made up his mind, and first Silvano said no and then he said yes…”
I gasped. “But why? Why did he?”
El Gato stared at me. “I guess he was curious.” He had a drink of his beer; he was looking miserable now.
“You’re doing fine,” said Julio. “Then what happened?”
El Gato went on, staring at the table again. “At the back of the basement in the water-works there were candles burning on the floor and Silvano went over to look and he asked, ‘What’s all this for?’ And then Diana came out of the dark where she was hiding and stood in front of him with an axe in her hand. She just stood there, staring at him, and her eyes were horrible. Silvano said again, like he didn’t understand, ‘What is this?’ And then Miguelito bashed him on the back of the head with an iron bar.”
I was crying. I could imagine the scene only too well. You fool, I thought. You careless fool, to throw your life away like that. You poor fool.
Julio said, in an unsteady voice, “So the witch didn’t want to get blood on her hands.”
“Not her. After he fell down Miguelito wanted to give him another bash to make sure, but Diana said, ‘No, we’ll wait and see if he’s dead first. I don’t want the body spoilt.’ So they waited and he was dead all right. And she made us pick him up and lay him on one of those slabs down there, and she said people would be coming for him later and one of us should stay there on guard. I said I’d stay but they didn’t trust me. They were right. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I had to do something to pay them back.”
“It was you who cut off his hand!” I exclaimed.
“Yes. But not that night. I kept hanging round the place and I saw two strange men go in a few times but I didn’t see them take Silvano away. On the third night I went back and there was no one on guard.”
“Was it you who phoned us?” Julio asked.
“A friend called you for me.” He looked away again. “I don’t know what they’d done to Silvano’s body – they’d cleaned it up and it wasn’t rotting – so I cut off the hand with a butcher’s knife I found there because I thought that would spoil it for them, and the next day I threw it in Helena’s window when she wasn’t there. We’d dropped Silvano off there once…”
El Gato looked at me, needing a reaction, and I said, “It was a good thing you did.”
El Gato stared and blinked, but he returned to his story, which he had to finish now.
“But then I got scared,” he went on. “Miguelito went wild when he found the hand missing, and he said I’d be blamed. So I watched you and when you went out I thought you’d go to Bald Master’s place so I went there too. I was thinking of explaining to you, but I found the packet on the bed while you were in the altar room. I thought I’d been lucky but then Miguelito saw me leave there. He took the hand. I swore it wasn’t me that cut it off, but he told Diana it was me and Pedro that did it and she said we’d die for it.”
The scene we saw through the window, I thought.
“So we ran away. I don’t know where they took Silvano’s body. I don’t know anything that happened after that. I don’t know how I’m still alive.”
There was a long silence. Then El Gato said, “I guess you hate me.”
“No,” said Julio, “we don’t hate you. Drink up in the name of the goddess.”
I went home then. I’d taken leave of Bald Master and I wanted no more of death and dead bodies. My street looked quiet and green and the broken pane in the front window of my house had been mended. Josefina was still there.
“Thank the goddess you’re safe,” she said, hugging me. “I’ve been looking after the house for you.”
“I’m safe. And I’m glad you’re here.”
“Did you find out what happened to Silvano?”
“Yes. Give me time and I’ll tell you all about it. I can’t think about it any more now.”
“Are you all right.”
“I’m all right. I only need to rest. And what’s the news of Rosario?” I asked.
“She’s fine. But she says she’s not coming home yet.”
“Why not? Gálvez has won, hasn’t he?”
“Not everywhere. Her people don’t think the war’s over yet. They’re staying on guard. She’s down on the plains now.”
“That’s a bit hard on you.”
“I’m getting used to it. And when she came to see me before she left she thought she might be pregnant. Then she’d have to come back soon.”
“That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Josefina. “It would be very nice.”
It’s all over, they say. Gálvez is in charge. The gods have favoured him for now. And it could be that the Goddess saw in him the makings of a hero. It could be that in the end he will be my heir. Time will show. There are people who still think I am a threat, and they will keep me on the run until they too get tired and decide to go home. They’ll never catch me in all this wide open space. I know how to survive on the land, and I have many disguises. Remember, if you’re driving over the plains and see a great snake coiled somewhere in the grass, or a flock of red birds (red was always her colour) rising from a lonely tree, I will be there. I will be in the lightning out at sea and in the wind howling in the rocks of the high mountain passes. I will speak in her voice in the temples and in the hearts of warriors yet to be born…
Rosario’s baby – a girl called after me – is six months old now and they live with Josefina, Germán too. It was hard for him to leave his friends on the plains, but he chose the family and went back to his mechanic shop.
Life under Gálvez has been peaceful, though from the way he talks I’m no longer sure that what he means by respect and freedom is the same as I mean. I mostly keep my opinions to myself. This country has roots in several kinds of darkness I’m still far from understanding.
I also have a child in my house and am called grandmother. I got in touch with Chía soon after I returned to Mucutay, and found out Silvano had been helping to support her and she had no one to fall back on, so I brought her to live with me in my large house. We get on very well, leading mostly separate lives. She helps with the housework and goes to night school. The baby is called Marly and I, of course, am sure he is extraordinary. We try not to spoil him.
Sometimes I go to the María Leona temple in the barrio, where many people are my friends now. Most evenings I go to the rotunda in the park for the sunset meditation, and I often sit there alone in the daytime too.
I can never exhaust the vision that is my reward for pursuing my quest to its end. I soon understood that Silvano the man and the god I had seen in him were both alive for me and finally in their proper relation. Exactly what that relation is, and what was the mythical drama being played out in my love for him, and what was my connection, beyond rivalry, to poor, possessed Diana, are questions that can be answered only gradually. New awareness is not coloured by excitement or dread like immediate experience. It’s born slowly or approaches and recedes without showing its face, like a whale I might watch playing idly in the ocean under me. Or it offers me quick glimpses, like the dancing gods going through their infinite variations in the sky.
Sometimes I see the golden god, with his hair spread round him like a halo and his long healing nails flashing, break out alongside the rising sun from the peaks above this valley, or perch at the top of an avocado tree when the late afternoon sun dazzles in it; or the dark god lean and ashen-coloured at the top of the sky at midday or showing laughing fangs out of a storm-cloud. They might take each others’ places too, because in the end they are not only twins but one and the same.
Occasionally I remember “Grandma” – my grandmother – and the tears of self-pity I was capable of shedding when I envied her safe world. How suffocating that safety looks now. I willingly leave it to the past.
Julio talks to his wife more nowadays. They are expecting another child and are happy about it. Gabriel still has his crises but survives, with his strange wisdom. He has become a good friend, and has visited me here in Mucutay with Alvaro. Alvaro comes quite often, and is more than a friend. He got in touch with Maggie after he saw me being driven away from the pink villa, and the two of them reassured each other about my silence until I returned to Caracas from the castle.
As soon as the forbidden year was over I went – following Julio’s directions – to the hillside where Bald Master’s body was left exposed. There’s a small shrine there now. His bones were clean – the vultures would have seen to that – and strangely fine and fragile. They were not much scattered and lay on the grass like the spokes of an oddly carved wheel, empty at the centre.
I sat down near the bones and cleared my mind of thoughts. The buildings and roads in the valley below looked very far away. A breeze was moving the branches of the trees, and insects hummed and whined. Suddenly I saw that the hub of the wheel was not empty. From the ground to the height of a sitting man rose a transparent column of diamond clarity. I got up and walked slowly round the circle of bones. The vision of the column came and went – sometimes it seemed only the play of the late afternoon light; then again it acquired shape and density. I almost put out my hand to touch it. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had, but I didn’t need to touch it to know it was as solid as eternity.
I sometimes wonder about that other man still out there. He could be dead, and if he is I’m sure the earth bears no such wonderful mark of his spirit. A rotting stump would be more like it. But I don’t believe he’s dead. There are moments still when almost tangible thoughts drone round me like insects, reminding me of the terrible threatening days when my world seemed to be ending. It’s fanciful, but I sometimes think of them as his thoughts. There is pain associated with them, and a raw beauty, and a movement like heavy flight.
The earth, our wellspring and our home, is infinitely motherly. It’s never too late for a return from pride to the community of her creatures.