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Volume 16, Number 9
September 6, 2010

culture special

Also in this section:
The Panama News Acrostic
Poets' Corner
Sparky the Wonder Dog
Impressions of Disneyland, paintings by George Scribner
Groundwater: A Listening Project
Cool Internet Sites
Passage to Panama: a musical journey
Noises Off!

by Olga Berrocal Essex

Facundo stood at the doorstep of his whitewashed adobe and rubbed his bare back against the doorjamb, up and down, from side to side, like his bony horse rubbed his neck against tree trunks and fence posts. The door had been the scratching post for the old sugar cane farmer for so long that the wood had worn smooth right about the height of his shoulders. The early evening remained hot and sticky. The smell of ripe sugar cane emanating from the fields could gag a newcomer to San Simón, Facundo thought. And there was that boy, Miguel, leering at Carlota who let the light breeze lift her short skirt and reveal thighs of sculpted mahogany, before she walked inside her house across the street. Yesterday it had been Conchita. Tomorrow, who knows? Any woman would do for Miguel.

That boy needs a talking to, Facundo thought. He called, "Come here, Miguel, I've an errand for you." He fished inside the pockets of his grimy work pants.

Miguel didn't run anymore when his stepfather called him. Now he walked slowly, swung his arms, moved his shoulders up and down, as if he were dancing to some music playing in his head, and thrust his pelvis forward. At fourteen, Miguel wore his pants tight and proudly displayed the bulk of his incipient manhood.

Facundo cuffed Miguel on the side of his head. "Stop acting like a fool. Here, get us a couple of beers," he said, and handed him some crumpled currency.

"One of these days I'm going to hit you back, Facundo." Miguel rubbed his head where the old farmer had connected, took the money and headed for the corner cantina.

Facundo pulled over one of the taburetes that stood near the door and sat on the smooth tooled leather, stained with time and sweat. He leaned it against the adobe wall so only the two back legs of the chair touched the gravel and hooked his bare toes on the cross braces on each side.

Miguel walked out of the cantina swiveling his hips, his knees bent. He bowed and stepped back, to the tune of the cumbia rhythm that followed him from inside. He had opened one of the bottles and sipped the frothy brew. Still dancing to the fading music, he ducked around two little girls jumping rope in front of the house where he lived with his mother Carmencita and his stepfather. "Here, Viejo, wet your whistle," he said, and handed the unopened cold bottle to Facundo.

"Did you shake it?"

"You bet! It's going to spray all over you and my mamá will know you've been drinking." Miguel laughed, as he watched Facundo pull a bottle opener from his pants pocket and pry open the metal cap, holding the bottle of beer at arms length. It didn't spray.

Miguel dragged over a taburete for himself, took off his shirt, and sat next to Facundo. He turned halfway around and hung the shirt on the side of the taburete before he concentrated on his beer, making every effort to match Facundo's motions.

"Ah…!" Facundo smacked his lips and tilted the bottle again. This time he chug-a-lugged.

Miguel didn't follow suit. He only stared with admiration.

Facundo turned to Miguel. His eyes narrowed and he surveyed his stepson's biceps and strong torso. "I've seen you drooling over the women, Miguel. You've to watch that, muchacho. You've no idea what kind of trouble you can get into," he said, and let the empty bottle roll under the taburete.

"But they look sooo good, Facundo."

"Let me tell you what happened to me." Facundo placed his hands behind his neck and leaned back. "I was just about two or three years older than you, when I met the woman of every man's dreams."

"My mother?"

"No. Are you stupid? I said I was about seventeen. It was a long time before I met her." And many women before Carmencita, he thought. His voice softened and his memory went back to the day he had worked late in the cane fields and night had caught up with him on the way home.

"I was reaching the clearing that leads to the road into town when I saw, some distance away, something coming toward me. I squinted." Facundo's head moved forward, his hand reached out and now he relived the moment, searching. "And then I could tell it was a woman. Slender, taller than me."

Miguel swigged beer and shifted on his seat, all his attention on his stepfather.

Facundo went on, "She turned at the first street corner, but by then I was close enough to see that she wore her hair in a braid wrapped around her head like a crown. That hair was blacker than the darkest night. Her long blue dress seemed to give out a light that surrounded her. I stood on the street and watched her walk away. I had never seen her before. She wasn't from these parts. Her image stayed with me and that night I dreamed of her."

"What did you dream, old geezer? The same thing I dream when I see Carlota?"

"You better show some respect, boy. You don't even know yet what a man dreams about. You think you do, but you don't. Shut up and listen."

Miguel had finished his beer. He left the bottle standing under the seat. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back. "Go ahead, viejo, don't get all excited. I'm listening."

"I waited for her the following night. She came. This time she wore a yellow dress that left her shoulders bare. I could see the milky skin on her bare neck. The hem of the dress reached just above her knees. She walked barefoot, but I swear to you, her feet didn't even touch the ground, because I couldn't see any dust lifting. It was a dry season, too. It was around Eve of All Saints Day, late October. We hadn't seen rain in a long time."

"Forget the weather. Tell me about the woman."

"This time she didn't turn the corner. She came toward me and, as she passed by, I could smell her perfume." Facundo closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. "Jasmine and roses. Her skin looked like the porcelain face on that imported doll Carmencita has sitting on the sofa. Smooth, white. Just barely pink on her lips. When she looked at me, I felt like a spear was piercing my chest. It hurt. I don't know why," he shrugged, "it just hurt."

Facundo turned his head to look at Miguel, whose eyes were wide open, fixed on the old man. The boy licked his lips. Facundo looked straight ahead then. The girls were no longer jumping rope. He watched them go inside a gate and followed their silhouettes until they blended with the dark shadows cast by avocado and papaya trees. He whispered, "Her eyes were so black and shiny, direct. Her lips looked soft and pulpy." He closed his eyes again and took a deep breath. "Swollen, wet, like she had been sucking on a mango."

After a long pause, when no one moved, when even the night seemed to hold back its sounds, Facundo continued. "My heart was beating fast, Miguel, but I gathered enough courage and asker her, 'What's your name' before she was out of earshot. 'Rosaura,' she said. Her voice drifted toward me like music from distant marimbas.

Miguel straightened up. Now his chair sat square on all four legs. His wide, brown eyes, still new and clear with the innocence of the childhood he would soon leave behind, looked at Facundo. "Go on, go on."

"She let me walk with her a few blocks. We didn't talk. I didn't know what to say to her. It felt as if she was pulling me along with her. Suddenly, she stopped, faced me, put her arms around my neck and caressed the hair on my head. Everything stopped for me at that moment. I couldn't see or hear anything. Only the two of us existed." He looked at Miguel and the boy held his palms up, his fingers motioned Facundo to get a wiggle on.

Facundo turned to stare at the shadows in the night. "She told me not to come any farther. 'Meet me tomorrow, at the same time, in the same place,' she said. Then pushed me away gently and I watched her go." He shifted in his seat and ran a hand over his face as if to erase a vision. "I was drenched in sweat and all the noises of the night came alive in my ears at the same time. I could hear the cicadas, the crickets, frogs in the pond beyond the field. The dogs seemed to be barking inside my head. I thought I would go deaf and covered my ears."

Miguel's voice came out cocky, high pitched, and hurried. "You were green, old man, you were sooo green. That wouldn't happen to me. With a woman like that? I wouldn't let her go." He slapped his thigh.

"Yes, you would," said Facundo. "You arrogant little punk. You wouldn't want her to see that you had peed in your pants, you little bugger."

The boy laughed. A nervous laugh.

"The next night I was ready for her. I had on my best clothes. I'd dusted my pantuflas. I shaved for the second time that day and I don't know why I did that. I didn't even have hair on my face then."

"Whoopee!" Miguel applauded.

"Shut up, or I won't tell you the rest." Facundo rotated his shoulders and some of the whitewash peeled off the wall and fell to the gravel floor. "That night she wore red. A red so deep it reminded me of a bull's warm blood. It was a silk long dress, cut so low in front I could see the rise and fall of her breasts as she walked toward me. She had taken down her braid and her hair fell like a shawl all the way to the back of her knees. It moved around her with the wind, like a veil. 'Rosaura,' I said. 'My name is…' She put a finger to my lips. 'Don't tell me your name. I already know it,' she said. When she took her finger away, my lip felt as if it had been held against an ice cube. I licked it. It tasted bitter.

From inside the house, Carmencita called them to come in for supper. They ignored her.

"We walked in silence for a while," Facundo said. "The streets were quiet. At least, I couldn't hear anything. When she was around, everything was still. It was late on the Eve of All Saints Day, so the children that would've been playing on the street were tucked in at home. I wanted to put my arm around her and she guessed it, because she took my arm and placed it on her waist." Facundo motioned with his hand as if caressing something. "I felt her hips moving under my hand and my heart beat faster. 'Close your eyes,' she said. 'I'll guide you. Don't open your eyes until I tell you.'

"She told me when to step up to a curb, when to step down. After a while, she asked me to wait." Facundo swung a foot slowly over the gravel. "I could feel the soft earth beneath the soles of my pantuflas. I could smell the moist plants and trees around me, something rotten nearby. I couldn't tell what it was, but it was making me sick. I heard the rattle of chains and the squeak of a gate opening. Then she came back for me. When she touched me, all I could think about was the rise and fall of her breasts. I wanted to touch that roundness so much I hurt.

"Her hand felt rough when we walked again for a short distance. She sat me down on a hard, cold surface. 'Don't open your eyes,' she said, and her voice came out raspy, mean. She wants me too, I thought. Her fingernails scratched me when she unbuttoned my shirt. I didn't care. When she whispered in my ears, her breath was hot and she smelled so much of jasmine and roses, it almost suffocated me. But I didn't care. Her hair wrapped itself around the two of us. A choir of voices surrounded us. Low at first, then, as we came together, the voices were louder and louder. I couldn't understand what they chanted. I didn't care."

Facundo looked at Miguel again. The faint glow from a distant streetlight showed him a frightened kid, eyes like saucers. Miguel's jaw had dropped and on his forehead drops of sweat shone like sequins.

Take that, you little bugger, you think you're already a man? Facundo thought.

Carmencita yelled at them again to come in for supper.

Facundo ignored her. "I must've slept, because the next thing I remember is feeling the early morning sun on my face. I opened my eyes. I was alone, lying on my back. Above me, the branches of an old ceiba moved slowly in the wind. As I looked to my left, then my right, I saw some cement crosses, some marble angels, their heads bent down in sorrow. My pulse pounded in my head so hard I thought it would explode, but I jumped up and looked at myself. My shirt hung in tatters and there was dried blood from scratches on my chest. I felt the cool early morning breeze on my bottom. My pants and my calzoncillos lay crumpled over the marble slab where I'd spent the night. I picked them up and stepped into them quickly. Then I saw the name carved on the white marble: 'Rosaura Sanjur' it said. I read the dates. Born July 10, 1880 and died on All Saints Day 1902."

Miguel crossed himself and stood up. The chair fell. The empty beer bottle tipped and tinkled rolling toward the gutter. "Viejo baboso!" Miguel yelled and ran into the house.

Facundo stood up and stretched. "That boy needed a talking to," he chuckled.


The author is a Panamanian living in California

Also in this section:
The Panama News Acrostic
Poets' Corner
Sparky the Wonder Dog
Impressions of Disneyland, paintings by George Scribner
Groundwater: A Listening Project
Cool Internet Sites
Passage to Panama: a musical journey
Noises Off!

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