THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ
BOOK SEVEN: CUAHTENOTL EPACT
San Sebastien was a fair sized town, larger than it seemed... perhaps... for the compactness of its streets, which lined both sides of the tracks. Like many railroad towns, and not only in Mexico, there was a palpable sense of division... one side, if not prosperous, was at least tidy, the other abject and seemingly on the verge of falling down the side of such mountain as José never did get the name of. The tracks not only divided north from south... for the Mexican line had swerved sharply so as not to have to pass directly by the volcanoes... but up from down. The gente decente of San Sebastien, such as they existed, lived above... those without fortune, below. There are such places where the whole of Marx and Adam Smith (and Thorsten Veblen, too) may be discerned in just one glance... José glanced, decided and turned to the high side of town. There were no other passengers either arriving or departing... the porter exchanged pouches of correspondence with the town's elderly stationmaster and the train was off, steaming down the mountain on its way to Cuernavaca and, thence, Mexico City.
Despite the lateness of the hour and an uncommon mist, more suitable to the alleys of old London, the streets of San Sebastien Alto swarmed with children... children in the white trousers and shirts common, also, to those worn by the indians of the Yucatan. Many of these pulled small wagons which José, upon leaving the platform, determined to be coffins on wheels, ghastly toys that reminded the Major of the nearness of the Days of the Dead which, he knew, were observed more diligently here than on the Yucatan peninsula. One of these moppets approached him and, pulling on a string that activated some hidden mechanism on the wagon, caused a papier mache skeleton painted a slightly phosphorescent green to leap up and salute him. José drew back his foot to administer swift, certain punishment... for how could he not be certain that one of these wagons concealed a weapon... but the delinquent scurried away into the mist, followed by others and, inexorably, more of San Sebastien's cadaverous dogs.
The encounter reminded José of his mission, also that he was hungry... grasping his bag tightly against any spirit, living or dead, that might dart out of an alley or doorway, he began searching up and down the streets of San Sebastien for life other than that of those ragamuffins, whose cries and screeches, barely distinguishable from sounds animals make, echoed through the damp town with only single, dim gaslamps on its corners and, of course, the blanched and swollen moon overhead. He tilted his hat so its accumulated drizzle would not trickle directly into his face and gave consideration to a conceit of Mr. Poe... that San Sebastien was a city in the lurid sea, overlooked by don del Muerte; a melancholy throne, unreverenced, where...
"No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long nighttime of that town!"
He trod the length of San Sebastien's main street without finding an unshuttered building, climbed a mud path up to the next street, turned back towards the station and finally... on an unlit corner, espied the dim glow of a panaderia that also sufficed for the neighborhood cafe. José entered, placed his bag on the floor, near his heel, and asked if there was any food to be had... all that was left for sale was beer, coffee (horribly flavoured, to one whose palate had been spoiled by the brews and aromas of Parroquia) and the small, barely edible novelties of the season of death... hard sugar candies fashioned in the shapes of skulls, tombstones, owls and other artifacts of somber aspect and the pan de muertos, biscuits with hard, sweet frosting crisscrossed like the slats of a ribcage, flayed and baked. These were, of course, quite stale and, dunked in the odorific swill sold as coffee, provided a miserable supper... redeemed only, at the last, by news of the man in the red shirt.
The proprietor of the panaderia admitted to no knowledge of Kanegis but, among the few patrons of the seedy establishment, was a retired Ingenario who had, apparently, been victimized in some complicated confidence scheme... the extent and even cost of which he still had been unable to determine, for it involved the changing of revolutionary currencies whose value might yet rise (or disappear completely). Kanegis was a Greek, a deserter from the wars raging through the unhappy Balkans, perhaps, or a former resident of Mexico City, compelled to flee the capital as a consequence of some criminal activity gone wrong. He did wear a red shirt over dark trousers that had, at one time, been part of a suit of distinction... such as a wealthy man might wear... but such days were clearly behind him, as his petty grafting proved. He was of a terrible temper, but also a sycophant... a collector and broker of information without regard to its source, reliability or consequence.
(Hearing this, José's determination not to permit the man to leave this desolate part of Mexico was settled, and he prodded the leather bag with the tip of his boot to be sure that the Webley and the Browning automatics still rested therein.)
The Ingenario then advised José that Kanegis had left San Sebastien... he had gone on to that very village of miserable scavengers that the porter had pointed out, Cuahtenotl. "On business!" the Ingenario shook his head. "What business is up there, save the buying and selling of garbage?"
The mention of the trashpickers' village up the mountain brought José a bounty of gossip from all of the patrons of the panaderia... some of it useful, most of it the self-important swagger of small men with just enough fortune to dwell on the better side of squalid, little town and, thereby, anointed with the liberty to deride those more miserable than themselves. Cuahtenotl, to hear the stories that they told... inevitably cut off by a slurping of the panaderia's noxious coffee or an explosion of crumbs from stale pan de muertos... was a seething suppuration on a mountain of the Devil's turds.
"They steal children," one tubercular fellow assured José, "and train them to crawl through abandoned mines, looking for gold that has fallen through the pockets of the Cientificos!"
"In Cuahtenotl, on the last night before their Epact... which is, in fact, tonight!... such good souls as exist there drink themselves into a stupor and, if they are fortunate, will not awaken until Sunday!"
"If there is no corn, they do not despair, for they will kill and devour any dog, cat, rat or bird of carrion that dares intrude upon their village. That is why there are so many dogs here in San Sebastien - they know what awaits them up there!"
"Up there, in Cuahtenotl, time runs backwards... even for the indians. Tonight is the last day of their year... then come the five unlucky days which these diabolists associate with the dias de muertos, then their New Year begins in cold and rain. Not on the week past Our Lord's day, which is itself after the solstice so that the lengthening of the days brings hope, nor in February, where the days are lengthened further, still, and the spring is at hand, but next Sunday." And because José was there to locate the man in the red shirt, and not get into disputes, he refrained from telling them of the indians of Yucatan and the Territory, whose New Year began in midsummer.
"They are Zapatistas, one and all..." the consumptive affirmed, with a great cough into his handkerchief.
"They eat their dead."
José nodded sagely at each accusation, more fantastic than the last, marking his memory with the few useful grains of intelligence reaped from this harvest of diabolism. No San Sebastiano would acknowledge having seen either Consuela or the Jackal... but the night train from Orizaba was the only way into the region, and no sane person of the high side of the tracks would spend any time at the station if he could help himself. Of course there were always the local police, but these somewhat respectable citizens held the jefe and his men in low esteem and, besides, there was a Jefe Militar for Cuahtenotl itself... a grafting, imbecilic son-of-a-bitch of a cashiered Federal officer, whose only merit was apparently that he was there, and they were here.
In short, a man with whom José already felt confident he could do business.
The other scrap of useful information José gleaned off of this tapestry of desolation was that the inhabitants of Cuahtenotl prayed to the Devil, one and all... their only priest a sorry sot and a lecher, to boot, their school a hotbed of sorcery. "Some women of Cuahtenotl have the capacity to transform themselves into vixens," one old man who'd introduced himself as Baltasar averred, "others into fowl and, in consequence, there is always some flavour of murder afoot, up there, with persons being found torn apart by their cousins and nephews, only parts of bodies, scraps, really... they are all relatives, of a sort, no outside person would ever marry into a family of scavengers. Would you wish to awake, of an evening, and find that your wife has become a bird... pecking at your pecker? Not even the Zapatistas spill their manseed into chickens!"
"Don Orfeo does," another codger corrected him.
"Orfeo is patron of the Club Diana, on the other side of the tracks," José's tipster explained. Of course there could be no vice unknown to such people.
José thanked his touts, gathered up his bag and stuffed a few stale death's head biscuits into his pocket, for who knew when he would find food again? There was no hotel in Cuahtenotl, not even a guesthouse, but fully half of its structures were uninhabited, he was assured, and there would be plenty of places to rest once he had covered the six... or eight... kilometers up the mountain on a winding, muddy trail. And he paid the tab for all of those present, securing their promise that no word of his being would ever pass beyond the confines of the panaderia, for the success of his enterprise depended upon secrecy and surprise.
"You're some kind of policeman yourself," deduced Baltasar with a wink, "come to carry the señor Kanegis back to Mexico for his crimes. Maybe you'll arrest all of those miserable creatures, up there," he added, hopefully, and José smiled and shrugged... a gesture that could have meant yes, or no. "Go with God at your shoulder, sir... Cuahtenotl is a foul abscess of sin and the excesses of jubilation, which Mexico cannot abide. Clear it out, root them out, señor, and the Lord will cover it with His canvas of darkness."
And several of the habitués of the panaderia even accompanied him to the door and pointed out that street which quickly deteriorated into a miserable path up the mountain. A sharp, biting rain had overspread the malodorous fog of San Sebastien, and José pulled his overcoat tight... sharp, wind-whipped branches lashed at his face and his limbs, for the path was soon so narrow that there were places where two mules would not be able to pass each other without one having to step off the trail and risk a terrible fall into the abyss.
And on that journey upwards, a sentiment came to the Major... not a memory but something other, if you will. A premonition... he could not know, but only sense that there was or would come a time when his soul would strain against its cage, a time of such cold, wet weather with danger to all sides. It caused him to slow, even stop for a moment, wondering at the mystery of mortality that had, so unexpectedly, blown across his path.
After some hours had passed, the intensity of the rain lessened... again the dull, silver moon peeked across the treetops like a great, round fungus in the sky and revealed, to the Major, the trail's nearly orthogonal elevation which ended, abruptly, at a great "X" formed by two tall, fallen pines... as certainly nature's warning to trespassers as would be a corps of armed Rurales, training their rifles on any presumed intruder. José sighed, for his days in the Territory had attenuated him to the signs and symbols of Juan de la Cruz... and his subterranean Other... but, after all, the uncouth Chacol had made off with eight hundred thousand pesos. Eight hundred thousand pesos... and the imbecile probably did not hold the worth of his bloody saddlebags to be a thousandth of that! It even occurred to the Major that he could secure them and the certificates they contained for payment of a pitiful premium... but the Jackal would be suspicious of the patron of Akbal, who had come all the way to this miserable redoubt for papers of such small worth. And then there was Consuela. And his pride.
No... nobody must ever leave this mountain alive.
And then José almost despaired, for the great eagle that always came to him in his prayers and desperation, pointing out the way to a swift, felicitous... though not always peaceable... resolution had apparently deserted him. Just as fortune had deserted Felix Diaz, who waited in jail for his uncle, or the Germans, someone to ransom him... José had prayed that Bravo would not be so foolish as to squander all they'd extracted from the Territory on behalf of don Porfirio's perfumado. What was José without his eagle? No better than the vain, obtuse Felix... no, not even his aguila chica visited to whisper instructions into his ear.
Nothing remained but a man... battered beyond his years... with a slippery, treacherous path ahead of him and the arms of Juan de la Cruz crossed, forbidding him entry into a place that was as far from Eden as Mexico was from its chalky-faced, putrefied moon.
He began to walk, placing one foot unsteadily in front of the other. One step, and another...
The needles of rain became sharper... and more numerous.
RETURN to HOMEPAGE – “THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ”
RETURN to GENERISIS HOMEPAGE