THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ
BOOK FIVE: THE BOOK of STONE
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
During his four days of convalescence, Octaviano Solis persuaded one of the soldiers to cut him two segments of vine, each a meter long and of about the thickness of a finger, for the purpose... the Colonel alleged... of holding his trousers up. This soldier, observing that the weight Solis had lost caused his clothing to hang loosely from his flesh, such as the robes certain Arabs wear, found nothing untoward in the request and, upon the afternoon of his release from the hospital, Solis tied both vines around his waist.
The church was opened at dusk, raising up an exalted cloud of fat, corpse-fed flies, of spiders and mosquitoes and, also, a host of crawling, hopping, slithering and flying things that fled into its depths from the waning sun, as from the embrace of a skeletal lover. A miasma of incredible proportion; mud and charred wood, animal and human excrement, dried vomit, tubercular phlegm and the hot breath of rats and bats and garrapatas issued forth as the newcomers waited under the protection of Corporal Boleaga and the Captain of the Guard, a thin, moustached fellow whose nervous eyes darted like a rabbit's. There they waited, as perhaps six hundred men and fifty women preceded them across the threshold of what had once been the Temple of the Holy Cross. Curses and the sound of fires being started could be heard as the shadows deepened and even... once... what seemed the strangled death-cry of what all fervently prayed was a chicken.
"Yes," said the Corporal, who was still taking measure of the new contingent of about fifteen men, "it is possible to eat well here. Quite well!"
He pointed to a bent old man, one of the indios mancos, carrying a tin pail... who waved back at Boleaga before entering the church. "Tortillas," said the Corporal, "go at seven for the penny here. Even the least of you," he sneered, "should make five cents a day. A man who cannot keep his belly filled has only himself to blame."
From the door, Solis regarded the high, sloping walls on which cobwebs were slung like hammocks; the sewage pails, the madman beating his head against the wall. Belem again, he reckoned, although a good part of the day was passed outside. There would be even less to be fearful of except, of course, for disease and Matochino.
"It's time," the Corporal said. motioning them to file inside. Boleaga hailed a black-bearded man, in whom the European blood could still be discerned beneath the ravages of drink. "This is Alfonso Aguilar," he said, "our eagle... who cares only for women, cigarettes and rum. Give him these and he will be your lifelong friend. Deny him at your peril."
"Again, no women?" Aguilar exclaimed. "What is the Republic coming to, Cabo? Are they still allowing the whores to run loose while we make do with journalists and indians. You haven't brought us any journalists?" he asked hopefully. "Or at least a musician... a flautist, I'd prefer. A lawyer?"
"Only a Colonel and a bartender," admitted Boleaga.
"Fauggh!" Aguilar said, spitting a great glob of mucus at the feet of Solis. "Colonels are as numerous, here, as fleas. A General, now that would be a novelty, but Porfirio Diaz shoots those before they can do any harm. And what use is a saloon keeper without rum? You've failed us again."
"The fault is not mine," said the Corporal. "It is the judges in Mexico City or the President to whom you must appeal."
"Ah," said the eagle of the Santa Cruz prison, "but they are there and you are here." He reached for Boleaga, half in jest, and the Corporal backed through the filthy throng and out the door, giving a wave to soldiers waiting outside. With a rusty squeal it began to close. An iron thump followed as the bar was dropped across it."
"That is the sound by which we measure out our days," Aguilar told the initiates. "It is the sound that you will loathe more than anything you have ever despised, or any person... but it is also the thing you shall come to love, and begin the day in prayer that you will hear again, for it is the measure of your survival. It is our National Anthem. I could weep for hours."
He removed his battered straw hat and placed it by his chest while his eyes measured the sixteen men.
"There," he finally pointed, "is Matochino, and there is his throne." The stained and torn divan was the only European furniture in the church and stood upon a low, raised platform cast of limestone, which, Octaviano Solis realized, had once been the altar of a Catholic church. Lo Matochino, himself, was invisible for the moment, crouching over a fire, but, when he stood, Solis estimated his height at just short of two meters. Even so, flesh dangled from his belly and his arms like pulp from watermelons. Matochino wore the jacket of an officer of the Rurales as a vest, its sleeves having been torn away. He shook a pineapple-sized fist towards Aguilar. "A brilliant fellow," the bearded man said, "and loyal too. He would have been a General or Governor, no doubt, but for his temper and a few other bad habits."
Matochino stepped over the backs of filthy people huddled in the mud towards the new arrivals. Bravo's congregation parted at his approach as the waters of the Red Sea had fled Moses' command and, as he reached Aguilar, he bellowed "Who?"
"Nothing. A saloonkeeper, a Colonel and some dead men."
Matochino grunted. "Who's the Colonel?" The heads of the prisoners turned, as one, to Solis. "Reyistas don't live long here. You won't either. Until that time you sleep there... by the shit." He pointed towards a space next to the sewage bucket. "That's reserved for officers disloyal to the army, our General and the President."
Without so much as a glance at the rest, he turned his back and pushed through the hungry people and mud towards his fire as if afraid that someone might be so desperate as to steal a moment of its warmth from him while his back was turned.
"The Koreans," said Aguilar, "he kills at once, the Reyistas after a few days. Other officers he leaves for times when there is no one else. This is your home now. Enjoy! Do any of you have money?" he asked with a malicious smile, knowing the guards at Santa Cruz had certainly removed anything of value that those in Mexico City or Baja California had overlooked. "Mugre!" he called.
The bent old indian who'd been given the name of the mud through which he hobbled brought his pail to Aguilar who gave him five centavos, enough to buy three tortillas for each of the men.
"Mugre is not permitted to lend money or to extend credit," Aguilar explained. "That right is mine, and also belongs to a few others such as that man over there with the straw hat, and a woman Matochino calls Scrape, after her old profession."
"Will Matochino lend me money?" asked an indian prisoner.
"Matochino does not lend. He takes what he wishes. If you find yourself with a few centavos in your pocket, he can get you cigarettes or meat, and if you've saved a peso he can find a bottle. Rather his boys can, Rafael or Poison. That's Poison in the black shirt, I don't see Rafael about. Matochino does not like the feel of money. Which, speaking of, you each now owe me a penny. Don't worry, I can have the Corporal take care of it."
"Where do we sleep?" another asked.
"Where you wish," Aguilar answered. "But if you have chosen somebody's place, the stronger of the two prevails. Except, of course, for the Colonel, who would do well to do what he is told. Matochino never says a thing twice. Accidents simply occur."
The fires that kept the church in a half-light and produced a smoke only partially vented by the holes in the roof slowly were allowed to dim and the heavy sighs of despair became rasps of hopeless sleep. Solis went to the place assigned to him, away from the occasional scuffles, and discovered that the pail already overflowed. He kicked a man aside, another officer in some distant, previous existence, and lay down... the defeated air with which with the other had yielded only confirming his determination to act on this very night, while he was still strong from Dr. Rosario's medicine.
But for one man, Solis was avoided the way one turns his head from someone already doomed. This exception was a demented Captain from Oaxaca, Maximo Sanchez, who kept those hunkered down beside the slops pail... most of whom were also commissioned officers... from their sleep with an incoherent stream of gossip and advice.
"You're one of us, Colonel, you know how to read and write. Tomorrow you must visit our library, the equal of any in Chiapas state. There have been many men of learning here... doctors, writers, professors... though the monte takes them all in the end. Ha ha ha," he giggled. "All of their friends and relatives sent books, which have been taken by Sergeant Gomez. For a centavo you may read them. But the man to really know is the Italian who is of both Masonry and Rosicrucianism, he has many secret councils both in Mexico and Europe. He's a black magician too, an artist who drew a caricature of the President which caused Don Porfirio to have pain in his teeth."
Solis yawned and turned his back but the Captain continued his chattering. Minds as well as bodies, thought the Colonel, are broken in this place.
"Lo Matochino is so fearful of black magic that he granted this Italian the right to hold a Ball on Independence Day. The General and all his officers attended, even the ones from the places out there." He waved, vaguely, in the direction of Akbal, Vigia Chico and the coast. "And the Cruzob, too, with all their devils, to whom Bravo and his followers pay homage to as gods. They sing and dance, and there is food and drink for everyone who pays and women too... or boys if you prefer. Ha ha ha ha!"
"Ignore him," a skinny major muttered. "Sanchez was a good man but he made some bad enemies four years ago. He was in the prison in Tabasco when they beat him with the penis of a bull, into which a steel rod had been placed... like so." The Major did something with his finger which Solis, mercifully, could not see for the dark. "Ever since then he has been crazy."
"Not crazy!" Captain Sanchez retorted. "I was at the Ball because I had the money, and because Matochino has taken a liking to me. Those others, none of them were there. None of them know."
"Four years is a long time to have survived here," Solis wondered aloud.
"Ah, but it is not so hard if one has lost his mind and all sense of time," the Major replied and promptly fell asleep, face down in the mire.
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