Iguana, Armadillos and the White Witch
(For Guillermo & Imelda, los matrimonios)
"My mother was a fish."--Calaban
Note: Spanish accents, tildas and inverted
question marks should be added before publication.
"They cry when you kill them and the meat is
white and very savory," our guide, Macario Contreras, assures me.
"You eat them?"
"Of course, we have always eat them, although it is sad to keel him and witness his tears."
"I heard they carry leprosy."
"No, no, they are small animals. They doan carry nothing but the shell on their back, their casca. With long tongues they lick up the water and the ants. A burro is perhaps what you have in mind, a beast of burden. This is an armadillo"
"Lepra. They carry lepra."
"Como lepra? Who says thees?"
"Hotz told me!" I shout over the wind, "my doctor!"
"What does a gringo doctor know of armadillos? Mierda del Toro," he says, "bool sheet. My people eat the armadillo for two thousand years, maybe ten. Nobody never have lepra till Cortes carry it here in his sheeps."
"Cortes had sheep? Ovejas?"
"No man, he come from Espana in his sheeps. You are university professors?" he asks dubiously. "Maestros?"
"Si," I tell him. Marcario and I are hanging on for dear life in the bed of a red Ford pickup batting ass through a cloud forest in the Eastern Sierra Madres, our T-shirts popping like flags. Two Visiting University of Georgia System teachers, Anna Schachner and Dot Davis are crammed into the cab with Paco, our driver, and Ramundo Cordova, our Latin American literature mentor. When I hijacked his students and headed for the cloud forest, Ramundo acquiesced and came along. Maybe he could teach the women something. The World Council sent us UGA professors to Xalapa to exchange ideas and pave the way for faculty and student exchanges with the Universidad de Veracruzana in Xalapa, but today I'm headed for Rio de Pescados, where there are supposed to be trout. I've toted my fly rod from Atlanta in a PVC pipe the size of a bazooka past paranoid stewardesses and customs officials all the way from Atlanta. I'm determined to snag a trucha by hook, gill net, gig or hand grenade. The gringas slap the dash to trumpet, guitar and violin on the blasting radio. We are flat hauling ass through the volcanic mountains between C and Jalcomulco in the state of Vera Cruz, trailing black smoke and Mariachi, hissing along a road that looks like it's been bombed. I peek through the back window. The speedometer needle freewheeling spastically like a clock hand in a time warp. An iguana zips across the threadbare asphalt and Paco swerves to hit it, dodging a pothole the size of a hot tub, slamming me into load rails. The Virgin Guadeloupe and a plastic Jesus sway and shiver on the rearview mirror. Paco knows heaven is better than Mexico and is trying to get us killed.
On the horizon I see the snowcapped volcano Orizaba, the highest peak in Mexico. Forty years ago, before Mexico City congregated the foulest vapors on the planet, I used to view the snowcapped volcanoes, Orizaba, Popocatepetal, and Ixtaccihuatl, my apartment on the Toluca highway. I climbed the Smokey Popocatepetal twice, guiding schoolchum Johann Bleicher the second time, losing the trail, getting us lost, stranded and nearly killed on an icy slope. Afraid to descend, we clung to frozen rocks with Alpine axes and spikes slammed into the sun-glazed ice. Eye to eye with soaring buzzards, we cussed, prayed and cried for our mothers as the moaning wind stung our faces.
"Are you sure there are trout in river?" I fish for a encouraging word.
"Hombre, the river is fool of trouts!" he screams. "And there are iguana, very savory with white flesh."
"You eat iguana? What's iguana taste like?"
"Very savory, iguana is much like armadillo. I will kill one for you with a rock."
"I want trout," I say, "trucha."
"Claro," says Marcario. "We will find trucha also. They call this place Fish River for good reason."
A fated armadillo crosses the road near the entrance of a coffee and mango plantation, where a crowd of campesinos in traditional white clothing and new sombreros stand waiting. It's rumored that the president of the republic will pass, and the campesinos have been given new hats and the afternoon off to stand there and wave. The Ford's front bumper punts the armadillo like a soccer ball into the crowd. The cracked shell sprays a crimson spiral nebula, bounces and rolls. Paco flashes a golden grin through the back window and the truck swerves dangerously toward the mangos. An old man walks over in his huaraches, picks up the shell-possum, shakes it and grins. We sail past police with M-16s and pump shotguns. A couple of helicopters squat in a pasture. Paco hardly slows down for the checkpoint, although he blows his horn and waves, shrouding the cops in mariachi and exhaust. I wonder if the sombreros will have to be returned after the presidential motorcade or if the campesinos will get to keep them. They'll get the armadillo.
At Jalcomulco we walk the cobblestone streets to a swinging bridge like a snaggletooth xylophone. The loose boards clack as we step gingerly over dizzy gaps. Ninety feet beneath us a river the color of chocolate milk foams over raging rapids. The bridge sways. I know I'd never set foot on this rattletrap if I weren't sandwiched single file between people I've talked into coming. The emerald mountains and the craggy gorge look like a scene from Romancing the Stone.
"Romancing the Stone was filmed here," says Ramundo.
"You're pretty set on this fishing thing, aren't you," Anna inquires, her white knuckles around a cable.
"Come Hell or high water!" I grin, bending my knees to keep them from rattling.
"Well, there's your water," she nods. The monsoon rains have gushed down the mountains, drowning a skinny cow, which bobs in a whirlpool with lolling tongue. A redheaded buzzard rests on the bloated ribcage.
The steep, muddy footpath strewn with donkey dung and pumice ascends the volcanic mountains. Stepping aside for Indian women who descend with baskets or washtubs balanced on their heads, we pass scattered pre-Hispanic ruins. We climb until my lungs and legs burn, finally reaching a cliff where we see a tiny whitewater raft disappear into a beige flume of Rio Pescado. A kayak tosses like a wood chip behind it. "The water is obscured by much rain," explains Macario. "We must climb high into the mountains where the big trout will rise to our hooks in the clear water."
A bright green blur zips across the path. "Iguana," whispers our guide. "We will keel the next one with a rock."
"Rock! You couldn't hit that sucker with a riot gun."
"The flesh is very savory."
"Rare too, I bet." The dust settles into the Sanskrit tracks as I wonder if a real iguana was really there. The streak I saw was faster than a scalded roadrunner, faster than a neon laser.
"Muy raro," he agrees. "You must stone them very precisely."
Anna, Dot and Ramundo seem grateful for the pause I view as temporary salvation. They glisten, I sweat. I'm wheezing in the thin air.
We follow the edge of the canyon, descending into the steep cloud forest. Above us are platform contraptions and cables through the treetops. I can't imagine any primate crazy enough to ambulate through the high canopy on a hand-held wire. A Tarzan on a pendulous vine would travel in slow motion compared to whoever tears ass through this forest. "Want to try it?" offers Macario.
"I sure don't. I want to cast a nymph into Fish River."
"Alla," he says, pointing to a thin, silver ribbon in the distance, wiggling between the cleavage of two volcanic hills bristling with jungle green. "There is only to walk down there and harvest the trouts and Iguanas." He rubs his palms together and licks his lips. "Muy sabrosa," he adds.
On the vertical footpath, my weak thighs cramp. My lungs rattle like an Arizona newspaper. With proximity the silver river tarnishes to pewter then turns to the characteristic chocolate of a Mexican river after a monsoon. This isn't the pristine whitewater river I've seen in tourist brochures and marijuana induced dreams. But by God I'm fixing to get down there and fish it, if I have to tuck and roll.
Where the river forks we ford waist deep, higher on the girls, bracing our downstream side with staffs whacked by Macario's machete. We hold tightly to each other in a daisy chain, fearful of getting swept away in a deluge of crème de cocoa. Dot and Anna drench their T- shirts and our Mexican hosts politely avert their eyes. The far fork, Macario asserts, is where trucha gather in great numbers. I forget my exhaustion and scramble over dry rocks and sand to a low waterfall, where I tie on a mosca flamboya created by daemon Aztecs on mescaline. Bolero style, Macario whirls a hand line weighted with pebbles, slinging a hellgrammite into the turbid foam. I flagellate the caramel froth in the frenzied spirit of the fly's hellish artisan, but it is, of course, Macario who catches the only fish, a mud cat about the size of enchilada. "Pes gato," he says, "Very savory."
"Do they cry when you catch them?"
"Quien sabe?" he answers. "Who knows?"
As afternoon shadows stretch across the riverbed, I start dreading the return up the mountain, am afraid of it. Already I know that Dot and Anna, basking on boulders to dry their shirts, are in better shape than I am. They'll wait for me at the top of inclines, offering condescended hands and kind smiles. Maybe watch curiously as I writhe with infarcted heart on pumice and donkey dung. I decide to return to Jalcomulco by river, downhill and one tenth the distance.
"It is not possible," says Macario.
"Of course it's possible. Doesn't this river pass under that claptrap bridge?"
"Yes senor, it is the same river, but the return must be surmounted in the same manner we arrived. To do otherwise is impossible."
"How do you know it is?"
"Because it has never before been attempted."
"Well, if somebody does it, maybe it won't be so impossible for the next guy," I grin.
"I'd take his word for it," says Dot.
"By all means," insists Ramundo. "Jalcomulco is Macario's home. The Rio Pescados is a treacherous river even without the monsoon rains."
"I'll meet you guys at the bridge," I say, handing Ramundo my five weight and fishing vest.
"I must ask you not to drown yourself while you are in my care," the guide insists politely. "It is very bad for business to lose gringos. There is many great rocks and raging water. There is hydraulics, whirlpools and hissing waves. And shark," he adds.
"Well, not much shark, but there is the Bruja Blanca, the White Witch. This river is not for swimming. I know another place where beautiful women bathe without no clothes. I will take you there."
"I'll tell you what, when the rapids get dangerous, I'll swim out and walk around them."
"I don't theenk so. Bruja Blanca will not pause kindly as for Moses fleeing the Egyptians. It is foolish to kill yourself far from home."
"I've seen worse than this," I counter. "Back in Georgia we've got the Chatooga."
"I too have seen worse. Between here and the bridge there is worse. Bruja Blanca is worse."
Guides are by nature overcautious. They think your hiring them evidences an inability to take care of yourself. I realize he loses face when a client takes off alone, but I'm doing him the favor of not having to call in the President of the Republic's chopper to airlift me out. I'll keep my shoes on, I decide, my head up and my feet downstream. How bad can it be? I can always wade out and take the high road. I squat into the current and turn loose. "Adios," I yell. "Yippie-ki-yi-yeah!"
Our guide crosses himself sadly. "Vaya con Dios," he mumbles, shaking his head.
Into the first bend I'm having as much fun as a grown man can have. Wow! This is great! The raging river tugs at my wet clothes and tries to suck me down, but it's easy to pogo off the bottom with one leg, pointing the other downstream to deflect the rushing boulders. Man alive, this is more fun than the Tilt-A-Whirl! I'm really hauling ass now, better than the Log Flume at Six-Flags. Bleached rocks, a scrub pine and a maguey blur past. Around the next dogleg, I'll pull over for a break. No sense getting in a hurry so far ahead of my compadres. I'll slow down and smell the Mexicalli roses.
The river accelerates. I'm still skipping along at a formidable lick, sculling with my palms, the warm tropical sun on my face. My shoulders have started to stress from treading water and my neck is stiffening from stretching it above the chop when I hear a tumultuous roar around the next turn and see the bank transforming into a vertical stone precipice. Hmm, the noise must be magnified by the high cliffs around the bend where the river cuts through the gorge. I guess I'll pass through the gut before I work over to the bank for a rest.
As I approach the bend, the river beyond belches thunder. My cramped neck bristles wet hackles as the current snatches me around a dogleg, where I see what nothing in my previous life has prepared me for: The Bruja Blanca, where the forks of the Pescado converge, each into its swollen twin, forming a mighty conduit of brown water compressed into a narrow strait. The velocity geometrically increasing into raging, cascading violence with no end in sight--a tempestuous gut of exploding rapids walled on either side by high cliffs. Macario is right. There's no way to squirt in one piece through the violent bowels of Bruja Blanca, the White Witch.
Even before I can fully realize my predicament, I'm riding the crest of the horrible wave formed by the union of two mighty forks, hurling me pell mell into the craggy jaws of the canyon. I'm caught in a surging dung-tinted avalanche of water. "Oh shit!" I scream as the wave peaks and buckles, tumbling me down into a gauntlet of rocky hydraulics that snap my human meat like Macario's shirt in the bed of Paco's truck. I glance off rocks, spin, kick, struggle, fighting halfway to the dim surface before I'm body slammed into another boulder, then sucked into and spit out of hydraulic after hydraulic. On and on and on and on, spinning, twisting, tumbling, helpless as a lone white sock in a washing machine, I'm finally too tired to struggle, swim or care.
My life and wives flash before my muddy vision as my lungs squall silently for air. My heavy limbs tug me deeper as I lament my unfinished novel and reckon sufficient postage to mail my body home to Kimbrell-Stern Morturary. I surrender to the destiny of mortal flesh and nudge eternity with one final kick of my toe as I watch the outer dark swirl and pool into shimmering light as muddy water leaks into my lungs. I think of Fred, my pet frog whose home was a fishbowl on the back of the toilet. Inspired by a flush, Fred leapt high, landing pop-eyed in the swirling bowl, kicking pitifully before my childish eyes as the enamel throat gulped him into labyrinthine darkness, a White Witch. Come back, Fred! I cried. It's too deep! Come back!
A profound calm displaces my wall-eyed fright and I become deeply grateful to the women in my life who chose to love me, forgiving the ones who turned me down flat or garnisheed my houses. I'm dead now, I decide. And it's not as bad as I thought. Not as bad as Omaha, or Tupperware parties or Disney World in July. Not bad as Darton's pre-registration or Fall Faculty Workshop, whemere I'd be if I weren't at the bottom of Rio de Pescados drowning. Suddenly, I cork to the surface, hurled upward by some random gushing current, vomitted upward by the Bruja Blanca as surely as Jonas was hurled by the leviathan. Helplessly I wash between two sharp rocks which holds me cruciform beneath the armpits, moored and bobbing on the ruffled bosom of the White Witch. I cough and sneeze, percolating beige foam from mouth and nose. Dry air burbles into saturated pulmonary bronchioles. Delivered from the churning belly of Bruja Blanca, I rock in the cradle of the river.
When I have floated and rested, and even dozed, I wiggle free and drift downstream into quieter waters. I approach an iguana as green as emerald, hemmed with a spiked draconian seam from foolscap to tail. He flips out a venal tongue and watches with ancient eyes set into sockets wizened as elbows. I grasp an orange size stone from the bank and covet the succulent white meat packed in a beanbag creature that does not cry when you kill it. My first thought after emerging from the jaws of death is to murder something living and eat it up, the true meaning of life: kill or die. Nothing's created or destroyed; we just passed around the cosmic food chain from one predator to another. After the girls and wives, the Tupperware parties, the faculty meetings, the root canals, taxes, dental floss and insolence of customs officials, the bottom line is just flotsam washing down rivers and galaxies, snatching a protein here, an electron there, or a cheap thrill from a flickering bank.
My friends are relieved when I drift living beneath the bridge. I pass Mexican women pounding laundry on sun blanched rocks and they flash gilt smiles of relief. Macario has convinced them that Bruja Blanca has eaten me and the village will be defamed. Now he smiles, swinging a dead armadillo by the tail. Anna, Dot and Ramundo sigh, delivered from spending the rest of the faculty development workshop recovering remains and making grim arrangements to transport funerial artifacts across the border.
"Did the armadillo cry when you killed it?" I ask Macario.
"No tanto," he says. "Not too much."