THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ

 

BOOK NINE:  BOOK of the JAGUAR PRIEST

 

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

 

          Valentin swayed and slumped against the bar, remembering his Shakespeare. "Is this a glass?" he pondered, "that I see before me?" It was, and there was an inch of mezcal remaining in it. The keeper of the Well drank this mezcal, and it revived him sufficiently to look about his place. The throng that should have been seated at the tables by the wall opposite the entrance was missing. In that unaccustomed emptiness, the naked wall oppressed Valentin with its ugliness. Foul green water oozed from the innumerable cracks in the blue stucco. Only a madman, realized Valentin, would situate his business in a basement in a city built atop a cemetery and a swamp. The slime on the wall reminded him of life's slipping down; maybe it was time to give up, to leave this Well to fill with thick, green water and to himself emerge, to go forth, somewhere else, so long as it was under the sun.

          It was not a natural and healthy thing, the cantina keeper reflected, that men should live like night frogs at the bottom of what was patently a well not only sorrowful but poisoned, now, by its own bleak reputation and by the police.

          One other thing he must be rid of, Valentin now thought, was Maria Morelos. In the bosom of the Well of Sorrows, where the light was always flickering with the whim of the sputtering, groaning candles, she still could pass for Neptune's queen but... by daylight!... the bartender winced at the thought of her fading charms – the gray strands in her hair and the stubble on her chin. And ever so sweet as her voice remained, she sang only sad odes to dampness, death, betrayal. He had not taken her to his bed for weeks and, even when he struck her for the money that she'd certainly removed from the forlorn sailors and moths of this place without sharing it, he was disgusted, for her flesh was cold and rubbery, moist like a mound of spoiled tortilla dough.

          And still she laughed along with the old fools, drawing out their old rooster lusts, stroking their bony backs and filling their scrawny throats with waters of the Well. The proprietor slumped back into his gloomy reveries. Soon enough, one of those would work up the courage to ask to take her home. Then, he'd close.

          He heard the song... hysterical and off-key... approaching and feared it as a stain shudders at detergent, a fist one sees coming but cannot avoid. Three faces gaily burst through the old door, two of whom he recognized at once, the third was that of a Federal Colonel whom they had surely summoned to arrest him. Valentin cursed the whim that had caused him to prevent the murder of the others, for it was clear that, when they could not find Lirio, they would exact revenge from him. The three stood muttering indistinct words in the center of the Well and the Colonel finally approached the bar.

          "I understand this passes for a music hall," he said airily.

          Valentin dragged himself up to meet the Colonel's gaze. "When there are patrons enough to make it worth the musicians' while, it is."

          Solis placed a bill on the bar. "Now it is worth your while," he said, leaving no opening for negotiations. The money was Constitutionalist, of course, and perhaps worth two thirds of its face value so Valentin nodded, grunting towards Maria. She went to a corner of the room where rested a guitar and wiped from it some of the dampness of the cellar.

          "Plays too, see? The best in all Mexico… for a woman," added Valentin, with little enthusiasm. "The rest of the band has through it advisable to seek a new engagement," he apologized.

          "In the Mexico I knew," Solis remarked, "women were wives and mothers, sisters of the church, even honest prostitutes. They did not smoke cigarettes nor play the guitar." Valentin offered no argument and the Colonel frowned. "I don't suppose that you'd have cognac in this place."

          "Why, of course I do." And, despite the mezcal he had consumed, Valentin deftly hoisted the unopened bottle from its cabinet beneath the bar. He had been saving it against the unlikely return of Victoriano Huerta.

          "That will do." Solis took the bottle and three glasses to a table and the intruders began to argue in that unfamiliar and hostile Indian language that two of them had used the night before.

          Babel, Valentin sneered, but hoped that the intent of their visit might be a peaceful one. But even as he did, one of the old men rose and made his way to the officers' table.

          "Pardon... pardon my intrusion, gentlemen," he stuttered but you would not be Free... Freemasons by a chance."

          "What of it?" Almanzar said.

          The man's hand dropped to his pistol. "Mexico is rot... ritten... rotten with Masconic orders and has been so for a hundred years. Cien años!" he exclaimed belligerently, staring from face to face but, finding no reply, he weaved back towards his table.

          Solis tasted the cognac warily; considering the nature of their place of intrusion, he could not, also, be certain that some insect would seize its opportunity to make a leap of death into it from the ceiling. He had tasted better, also worse. If nothing else, his imprisonment had taught him tolerance. "Do you have a favorite song for her?" he asked Silvestro. "Your muse?"

          "It doesn't matter." the Tatoob replied, staring absently towards the suppurating wall. He had not even touched his cognac.

          That is a man in love, the Colonel deduced. Things like this had been known to happen, and he recalled the proclivities of the revolutionary generals.  President Carranza was chaste, but Zapata, it was said, had known a hundred women and Pancho Villa had a wife in every state north of the capital. It was a force no man could set himself against... no sane man, the Colonel reckoned and called out a request. If the indian was to be hooked, it was best started quickly and, as quickly, finished.

          Octaviano Solis was no critic of music. He attended the symphony and the opera because such things were expected of him. A marriage had been arranged while he still was a young man but, following an erroneous report of his demise in the Territory's prison colony, his fiancée had taken another. Since the flight of Victoriano Huerta, he had instituted several courtships but each had failed, for the gente decente still regarded Carranza as untrustworthy, and those around him as precarious creatures. Finding immediate satisfaction was no problem, for a consequence of the prolonged struggle was that a great surplus of ladies to men had occurred, and Solis had crossed paths with the likes of Maria Morelos more times than he could count.

          "I must question Almanzar about the other night," the Colonel decided. It was obvious that the other two had not come from the opera to El Pozo Afligado, for the Tatoob would have been claimed by one of the artists or the ladies who haunted the capital in search of officers, no matter their origins, the higher their rank the better. What Silvestro needed was a uniform, and Solis resolved to have him fitted in the morning. Properly dressed, he could do better than this singer, but Maria would be useful for the night. In the morning she could be sent off with a gift, as the Colonel was used to doing. One of those European hats, Solis deliberated, or perhaps something more practical. Guitar strings... those Maria strummed were certainly in their last days.

          Two songs followed, both of the dolorous character flourishing in places where don del Muerte visits suddenly and frequently. As Maria set down her shabby guitar, Solis invited her to the table. Valentin presented them with another glass, using the opportunity to form his own estimation of the visitors. Was it possible that she would serve all three? If so, she would assuredly hold back some of the money that was Valentin's due.

          The Colonel was, in fact, negotiating for Silvestro alone, hesitating at the grand, lifelong promises the Tatoob beseeched him to translate and, already, disgusted at having to continue the pretense. "The General offers a business proposition," he had said, to which the bewitched Tatoob responded sharply... again betraying his understanding of Spanish, although he was not so lost in love as to hurl his command of that language back in the Colonel's face again.

          "Everything in this city is a business proposition... caan!" Solis reflected how appropriate that the Maya word for business was indistinguishable from that of a snake, but Silvestro Kaak had not finished with his tirade. "That is why I do not like this place," he said, "and shall go back to my village as soon as our business is finished, and I have flown among the eagles. Tell her, with great discretion and Spanish sincerity that I wish her to return with me to Quintana Roo."

          "Impossible!" Solis replied. "You're married."

          "Our marriage vows are not those of the Mexicans," Silvestro answered. "A jefe is permitted four wives, if he can support them. And, as I shall be jefe, your President will see to that." And, when all of the Colonel's pleadings would not move him from his resolution, Solis threw his hands up disgust and told Maria of the proposal, certain that she would recognize its folly.

          But Maria Morelos had smelled the forthcoming failure of her domain, arising out of Texcoco's graves to claim El Pozo Afligado and... having followed her soldados to many cities in the Republic... forgave Santa Cruz as her father's sepulchre, remembering it, in distant and inaccurate memories, to be one of those places like Veracruz, not so large as Mexico, and hotter, but with most of the conveniences of the capital. "I will come to the territory with you," she said again, but nodded to Valentin. "He will be so angry; I must return tonight but in the morning I will gather my things... and Pablito. I cannot leave without Pablito can I?" And she winked at Solis, a gesture that only deepened his loathing.

          "Valentin spends his afternoons at the Cafe Murcia. Tell the General that I will meet him on the Paseo at three, beneath Hidalgo's glorieta."

          Once more the temptation came to the Colonel to mistranslate the directions. Even if Silvestro knew Spanish, he would not be able to follow the array of streets necessary to reach the glorieta of Hidalgo, and Maria would wait and wait and finally go back to her damp situation and the pluvial Valentin. Silvestro would wait elsewhere until Solis took him by the shoulder, remarking on the breaks of life and the insincerity of women, taking him to a house or the cinema to raise his spirits. But, sensing how the Tatoob leaned upon Maria's every word, he understood that he could not do this. Not only would it be dishonorable, but, as Silvestro was not otherwise as stupid as he seemed, he would be offended by the deception and, after all, the indio would soon outrank him.

          "People have little gratitude," the Colonel thought, "towards those who seek to lead them from the harm they do themselves. When he finds out how his darling has aged in the sun, and brings some Mexican bastard with her too..." he smiled grimly; but then, as he was a practical and an honorable man, an officer... and because he'd decided that it would better that the Tatoob learn this lesson for himself... Solis set about to arranging the details of their tryst.

 

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