THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ
BOOK NINE: BOOK of the JAGUAR PRIEST
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
Silvestro and his reluctant escorts had taken a taxi to the Street of Death, but the Tatoob remembered nothing beyond that vague fear that the coffin shops and the dark garages hid and Almanzar had already confided to the Colonel the name of the evil place and his desire to let the matter expire for lack of directions. "It was to the left, perhaps," said the Corporal and Solis' driver obediently slowed his old fotingo to crawl around a corner. "No... right," said Almanzar.
"He doesn't have the slightest idea of what he's doing," Solis muttered, pretending exasperation. "Why don't you take over?"
"I saw nothing," the Tatoob replied. "It was her voice, her music calling me. But tonight I hear no such music."
"You heard the music of the cup and beheld its siren," the Colonel said. "This place existed only in your memory. An intelligent man does not drink mezcal and champagne on the same evening. Let's get out of this district. It's too late for the symphony but we can eat and still make the reception. Afterwards I know of an agreeable house, since that's what's truly on your mind."
"I agree," said the Corporal. "Not that what happened was imaginary... I am still too sore to believe that... but it is past the time that we were on our way. Probably the place has been closed. Somebody must have informed the police."
"Tell the driver to keep searching," Silvestro said, causing the others to exhale in unison. The Tatoob pointed to a shadow crouched against one of the gates upon the Street of Death... for the fotingo had made a circle and returned to this dismal place. He pointed. “Ask him what he knows."
"You ask him," Solis ordered the Corporal. "If he knows nothing of music, ask him where one goes to hire assassins. That's a beggar there, a leprero. Be careful. Don't give him more than twenty cents... Dios Mio, this one has no legs. Well, then, thirty."
The cripple, seeing the advance of the fotingo, approached the curb. Both legs were gone just below the knee and he had propped himself up in a child's wagon, propelled by canes in either hand that pushed the wagon forward or back as he wished. Its wheels were in grievous need of oil. A tomcat called out further down the Street of Death and, in answer, came a rattling of metal as one of the garages opened to receive a customer.
"A peso, kind gentlemen, for a poor man, a veteran?" The cripple's voice also possessed the timbre of rusting metal. He glanced up with a yellow eye as avaricious as a vulture's. "Kind officers... take pity on one who once was like yourselves."
"Tell him if he knows the basement where the night's song is wondrous," said the Tatoob, "where the Queen of the underworld ministers to men in their need."
But before Corporal Almanzar could mutter some nonsense in Spanish to deceive Silvestro into believing that he had asked and been told that police had closed the Well, the cripple laughed and spat into the street. "That's Mayan!" he said, "years since I heard that. I'm a Mexican, an officer from the knees up but the rest, down there," he pointed, "that's Yucatecan."
"Did you serve with Alvarado in Merida?" Solis interrupted.
"Merida?" The cripple threw back his head and howled, the wagon rolling back a half a meter with the force of his rusty laughter, followed by his rusty answer. "Would that it were, gentlemen, but my privilege was to be in the Territory!"
Solis bit his tongue as Silvestro repeated his question.
"More's the pity," the cripple said, "I do know the sound of the language but not its particulars. It's been more than ten years since I've been there... you really ought to ask my feet. They must speak Mayan now, as well as that fellow there. Don't either of you speak Spanish?"
He laughed again and, when the horrid, rasping sound began to fail, Silvestro declared "Donde esta El Pozo Afligado?"
"Such places," the cripple answered with a smirk, "they come and go. The ghost of Ramon Corral still haunts these streets." Solis grunted; not only was the former soldier legless, he was crazy and of no use to them. "I do not travel much," he said, "but I can lead you to the Colonel. He knows everything around these parts, he'll find your wondrous song. If we're lucky we can catch him, he never leaves his room before midnight."
"Why is that?" asked Almanzar.
"You'll see!" came the reply and, following it, came another rasp even less pleasing than that which had come before and, after that, the rusty wheels creaked backwards and cats, somewhere, moaned their replies, mistaking the little wagon's squeals for mating calls. The wagon came to rest and the veteran pointed down an alley between two buildings of the Street of Death, so narrow that the President of Mexico would not have been able to pass.
"Drive on," Solis ordered, but, as the operator of the fotingo guided his taxi from the cub, Silvestro demanded that they stop.
"I am going to this Colonel," he said, in a perfectly understandable Spanish, "and, if you are afraid you may remain here."
Solis turned to Almanzar, compressing his rage into a whisper. "Did you get him drunk last night?"
"Worse than that," the Corporal replied. "I think he's in love!" The Colonel grunted and ordered the driver to wait, and then... keeping anxious hands upon their weapons... the three followed the crippled soldier into the alley.
"Who's this one?" asked the legless man as his wagon squeaked and squealed its way through the alley. "How does it come to pass that indians move Federal officers here and about like tin soldados with merely a word. When I was in the territory," he remarked regretfully, "things were different."
"I will stand you to know," said Solis, "that, with the grace of God, this man shall soon be Governor of Quintana Roo."
"God has been keeping low company if that is so," the cripple answered, rusty laughter echoing like a ball between the walls that enclosed him. He changed his speech from Spanish to a hesitant Mayan. "So, you are going to be a Governor, the Halach Uinic of all the Cruzob. Be proud! And, Governor, when you take up your scepter, be sure to give blessing to my feet. They will be at your service. Whistle when the time is right and they'll come to you. Like this..."
He whistled through the alley and the noise blended with the wagon's squeak and the wet footsteps of the seekers for it was probable that the alley had not been cleaned since the Conquest.
At length they chanced upon a second avenue, an alley of such width that two men could easily walk abreast of each other. In comparison with the first, it might have been a boulevard as broad as the Paseo de Montejo... here, Solis and Almanzar were amazed to find apartment buildings and rooms to let in tall, thin edifices huddled against one another like drunken undertakers. Not a lamp, nor even candle, burned on this appendix to the Street of Death.
"Here we are," the cripple said, poling his chariot to a stop before one of the gaunt buildings. "The Colonel will not come down for us, so two of you shall have to carry me up these stairs. Whom will it be? Of course... the Mexicans!" he shrieked and, with delight, batted himself from side to side, the more to make difficult the burden Almanzar and Solis undertook as they scooped up his wagon, one at either end. With Silvestro following, they trod up three flights of stairs and arrived at a landing barely large enough for the wagon.
"Isn't there any light up here?" Almanzar growled, striking a match and grimacing at the squalor that he could see.
"No," said their guide, "and you would not want one either. The Colonel is awake, I think I hear something moving. Rats?" The cripple grinned at Almanzar as the match burnt down to his fingers. "I don't think so. If you please, officers, the door is open."
Solis was first to enter, and he found the floor to be covered with clinging, rustling things, which he hoped to be newspapers. Certainly rats abounded, plenty of them from the sound of it, but otherwise there was a larger, snuffling presence at a distance. The Colonel paused in what he reasoned was the center of the room. Almanzar followed, the squeaking wagon of the cripple rustling through the papers. Silvestro was last to enter and he closed the door.
"Visitors!" the cripple said. "Distinguished men, a soldier, an officer and the Governor of Quintana Roo."
There was a sigh from some far corner of the darkened room and a groaning of bedsprings. After some moments, an eerie growl emitted, broken by more sighs and gasps, ending with a staccato, wooden rapping, like the frenzied knocking of fugitives at the priest's back door.
"The Colonel was also wounded in the Territory, and has difficulty speaking," said their guide, edging his wagon forward with a squeal. "I can usually understand him."
"Was that speech?" Almanzar whispered to Solis as another burst of gasps and rattlings issued forth.
"The Colonel wishes to introduce himself, and asks that you do the same." The wagon squealed, its wheels advancing through the rustling things as its interpreter pulled himself another six inches towards the bed in the corner of the room. "This is Colonel Villanueva of the Twelfth Battalion, disabled in the territory and retired on pension. And I am Sergeant Andujar of the same battalion, also retired... upon a somewhat smaller pension."
Solis' ears flinched at the rusty laugh, cutting them like a scalpel. "There are three of us," he sought to explain but was interrupted by an angry outcry."
"Colonel Villanueva knows this," said Andujar. "He knows your faces and your uniforms... everything. He sees, the Colonel does. He sees you. Living by night, as he has been compelled to do, his vision is an owl's, to penetrate the dark and seek and seize its little souls."
"Very well," Solis agreed. "I am also a Colonel, Octaviano Solis, and with me is Corporal Almanzar. Like yourselves, we have..." and he thought before continuing, "...we have seen the territory. And the General is Silvestro Kaak, who is of Chan Santa Cruz."
There came an angry reply as of logs being added to a woodpile, followed by the sharp burst of a match, revealing the outline of a figure seated upon the bed. Muffled exclamations of horror rose from the silhouettes of Solis and Almanzar; the Tatoob saw their heads turning like dying stalks of maize. But he kept his own head erect, for he had faced this adversary in many guises before and knew that to bow in the presence of don del Muerte was to express one's consent to be taken.
The match sputtered and expired. "Villanueva was shot by the sublevados in the region of Yokdzonot, by the same beings as took my feet at the lake of Okop. Perhaps the General knows who did this? A clever surgeon who, unfortunately, died some years ago fashioned an artificial jaw from wood... hard mahogany from Belize, practically indestructible. The Colonel can even chew a steak... could he afford one." And Andujar laughed bitterly. "President Diaz promoted him at his retirement, but succeeding governments reduced his pension to fatten those of their own officers. He has his pride, our Colonel... he will not show his face to Carranza, nor beg at the Zocalo. Who would refuse him? But he shall answer your questions if you comply with a small request."
There came a tinkling of metal as Solis reached into his purse. The match had revealed the outline of a table only inches from his hand and, upon this, he made a pyramid of coins.
The cripple laughed.
"Take your thirty pieces of silver, Colonel... or leave them there if you desire. Nothing matters. Only this indian knows what Villanueva wants. We shall see how important to him is this Well of Sorrows." The wagon squeaked, the papers underneath rustled and Andujar spoke to Silvestro in Maya. "This Colonel remembers. You know what thing he wants."
"Who has taken the Colonel's jaw. What is the name of the one who possesses it?"
The Tatoob frowned, but an unknown face intruded... a face in his memory, bending over him to dispel his pain. A face, a song... a vision of the future. Mexico and progress. His, for the forfeit of a childish way of living... a toy outgrown.
"The Colonel's jaw was taken to the village that the Cruzob call Neneth. It is property of a great curandero named Chankik, who has many tokens of the occupation."
The clacketting wood replied to Silvestro as the match Villanueva held went out. The Tatoob wondered whether, if a tree could smile, it could show such contentment as men and tigers do; he had not volunteered to the Mexican that it would not be a deer he would face in Chankik but another, even more deadly tiger.
The snapping of branches continued in the dark.
"Colonel Villanueva knows this man. A great friend of old Bravo... it is said... like all of us! When you leave, follow this street until you have reached an empty shop with broken windows. There is an alley, which will take you to the Street of Cormorants. Turn right. When you have reached the Street of Blind Musicians, turn left. Three blocks down is the Street of Three Miracles and here, beneath the ground, El Pozo Afligado. Only a madman would construct a basement cantina...knowing what lies below the ground in this city... and only madmen would enter it. But you are of Quintana Roo, you know madness."
"Shall we carry you to the street?" asked Colonel Solis, leaving the coins on the table as he turned towards the place he thought the door to be.
"Don't bother," Andujar replied and his wagon squeaked. "The Colonel's hour is approaching. He will carry me down."
Almanzar bent over as he felt for the door and snatched up a crumpled sheet of paper from the floor, which he placed beneath his shirt, half expecting a remonstration from the Colonel with the wooden jaw who could see in the dark. But there came no response and he followed Silvestro's grunts as the Tatoob found his way to the door.
The alley by the empty shop was as dark as the veterans' quarters but, as they reached the Street of Cormorants, they found an adequately cobbled road, wide enough to permit two carriages to pass. Overhead shone the stars and moon and even, on a nearby corner, a streetlight... affording the Corporal an opportunity to inspect the paper stolen from Villanueva's floor, tearing off a strip in which to roll a cigarette from a small, leather pouch of tobacco.
"It's about the anarchist bombings in Barcelona. That was ten years ago," he cried and dropped it with disgust as a pale, white worm poked its blind head from one of the creases.
"Do you steal everywhere you go?" inquired Solis.
"As often as I can," said Almanzar. "From each according to his capabilities, to each according to his need. It's kept me alive in this city, and that's the least of it. Besides, we've kept that driver waiting on the Street of Death until the sunrise comes and coffin-makers open their garages to a new day. Since we don't know the way back to pay him, we'll be partners... partners in crime, no?" And he lit his cigarette... its fragrance sweeter, even, than that of Kentucky Standard, and urged his superior officers to join him in a smoke.
Reluctantly, the Colonel smiled. Almanzar grasped his right arm, seized the left of the Tatoob and they marched towards the Street of the Blind Musicians, their fellowship even inspiring the Corporal to warble a Zapatista anthem that brought disgust to Solis, then resignation, and finally he joined in...
"La Cucaracha, La Cucaracha
Ya no puede caminar,
Por que no tiene, por que se falta
Marihuana que fumar!"
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