An excerpt from Fiesta Smoke


Prologue

The story I am about to tell you is true, as I myself was a participant. Some parts come from the accounts of my contemporaries, as alive and vivid as a basket of eels. The rest, rising from the dust of centuries, is open to conjecture only to those who lack a certain kind of faith that we, who made this story by our doing, held as our deepest fiber. To participate with us, you must consider that illusion is the veriest truth and reality can play you false in a heartbeat. There is nothing more you need to know, except that in matters of this world–and no doubt the next–the only real thing is love.

. . . .

Sierra Madre Occidental, Chihuahua, Mexico

In a house ringed with guns, the couple is dancing. Courtyard walls condense fragrances flying on night wind sighing down the Sierra. Nectar and smoke lace with the smell of tortillas on the comal. From the open kitchen door a trapezoid of yellow light illumines, on a tilted chair, a blind guitarist whose gypsy rumba entwines the soft splatter of the fountain. White moths circle the musician’s head like spirits of inspired music.

The dancers scarcely move. He holds her close, his forearm across her back, her hand curled into his crooked wrist, the other warm on the back of his neck. He scoops her into himself, their hips pressing, slowly rotating to rhythm as one. He submerges himself in her hair, its scent of apples and sandalwood, brushes his cheek against its softness, and gazes into the darkness, alert for signs.

She rubs her cheek against the rough hand-woven cloth of his white shirt, breathes his essence–rich as newly-churned butter, sweet as vanilla, feral as a jaguar. It rises into her brain like a drug. Her head against his chest, she feels his heart pulsing powerfully, tuned like a guitar string to its own primal note. His whole being vibrates with what he senses: the closeness and surrender of her body, the sultry beat of the music, the luscious fragrances of the night, the invisible ambling of the guards on the walls, the inevitable approach of ruin.

Chapter 1
Calypso: Paris, 1992

Concentration kept down the fear. She focused on the tattoo of her orange snake pumps, the heel striking minutely before the tap of the sole, a rhythm difficult to maintain on the uneven cobbles of the quai. The full skirt of her yellow dress wrapped into her legs and flowed out behind her as she faced into the afternoon river wind. Walking quickly and confidently, it was her intention to look both purposeful and carefree.

She turned away from the bustle of rue Jacob into the tiny alleyway that cut through toward the Seine. It was her habit when leaving the library at the Sorbonne to pass that way, coming out near Pont Neuf. She enjoyed standing in one of the rounded bays, mid-span, leaning on the ornate railing after so many hours of reading, seeing nothing but the glossy water flowing silently down toward the sea.

She became aware of the follower when she hesitated, half-turned, before a shop window: dark hair, features hidden under a fedora, medium build, gray, nondescript suit. Because of him she had deviated from her accustomed route. She turned instead onto Quai des Augustins, with the Île de la Cité across the river channel, where there were always police around the Palais de Justice, even this late in the day. She could cross by Pont St.-Michel . . . but she did not. Instead, she continued down the river quays, hyper-alert to the presence behind her but wearing an instinctive veneer of calm. Her yellow skirt billowing around her calves in the autumnal wind, she arrived at Pont Saint-Louis having formulated a plan.

She slowed her stride as she stepped onto Pont Saint-Louis, that homely old pedestrian bridge so startlingly banal in the luscious heart of Paris, and strolled out to mid-span. Casually, she lowered her bag onto the pavement by the railing, slipped off her fox jacket, its pelts afire in the late afternoon sun, and dropped it onto her bag. Then, with studied calm and elegance born of many hours at the ballet barre, she turned to the railing and performed a perfect developpé. Raising her arm in a port au bras, she proceeded with the familiar routine of ballet stretches, humming a Bach cantata for rhythm. Behind her, a tattered stream of weary tourists straggled by, and a gray figure melted into the deepening shadows of the Left Bank dusk.

. . . .

Hill: Paris, 1992

Culturally, so much depends on the placement of the body in space. For the French, there are three reasons why one might sit alone at a café table: one is waiting for a friend, or is an intellectual, solitary and brooding, or one is a tourist. Of them, the first is most acceptable, the second, merely suspect, and the last, contemptible.

Perhaps his patina of world-weariness led the woman who served Hill his café au lait, carottes râspées and hard, butterless bread to believe he was the suspect of the three. In a neat dark skirt and white apron, she whisked to his table on the basic black de rigueur pumps of the Parisian working woman and deposited his food without the familiar buoyancy offered natives, but also minus the blank reserve that walled out the taint of the étranger. He was a creature apart, her actions told him. Having been so on every continent for the last thirty years, he accepted her appraisal without surprise or resistance. He was in fact vaguely pleased to find his psychological camouflage intact.

This café on Île St.-Louis was a favorite of his, although the prices were high and the food poor, fit only for the clientele of footsore tourists who managed to limp over that plainest, most utilitarian of Parisian bridges, Pont St.-Louis. The problem lay less in their feet, he always suspected, than in the daunting effect of that first tour of Notre Dame.

From his vantage on Quai d’Orleans, the cathedral rose majestically across the intervening channel of the Seine, dominating the tail of the Île de la Cité, startling and grand as a newly-erupted volcano. He watched the intermittent stream on the bridge. They came to sit over their coffees with the stunned look of survivors of cataclysm. Perhaps the fifth whirlwind day since Brussels had undone them. More likely, Hill suspected, it was the ecstasy of the thirteenth-century cathedral. Notre Dame smells of mold and smoke, but steps like a stone foot on contemporary notions of aesthetics.

Paris always put Hill in this mood. Bangkok, Tokyo, Montreal, D.C., Santiago, Baghdad–they had their charms, of course, but he could remain detached, do his job. But Paris! He approached her like a lover. Thirty years as a foreign correspondent dropped away and he was a besotted adolescent, or mendicant monk, finally come home to the City of Light.

He ordered another café au lait and sank his upper lip into its bitter foam. Across the river, the brilliant November light picked out the cathedral’s bones, and the great arching buttresses seemed to exist simply to exhort its immense walls upward. White flecks of pigeons sailed through the stone lacework of arcs and spires like liberated souls. It was this back view, with all her props and braces, that Hill loved. The facade always seemed too austere, too foursquare, with its truncated spires. No, Notre Dame revealed her true grandeur to those who flanked her from the Quai aux Fleurs and came with amazement on those arcing arrows of stone.

Here he was like an old lech, slobbering in his coffee over the Virgin, again. Time for a good war somewhere before his brain rotted out completely. He fished some ten-franc pieces from his pocket and began to push back his chair when his eye lit again on Pont St.-Louis. A woman stood there, mid-span, facing the cathedral. She was wearing a yellow dress and the afternoon sun slanting through it gave hints of a long and lithe body. But more remarkably, she had one leg stretched out on the railing and was rhythmically lowering and raising her torso to her extended knee, in long, balletic stretches. Intrigued, Hill left a five-franc tip to propitiate the gods and threaded out through the metal chairs.

When he reached the bridge, she had taken her leg from the railing and was doing a dainty little series of steps–a pas de bourrée?–her hands resting on the rail for support, apparently absorbed in the wonder of Our Lady’s derrière.

Hill was now close enough to ascertain three things: her dress was of a light-weight, open-weave wool of the most sumptuous Naples yellow; a red fox coat, heaped on a big oxblood-colored leather bag, glowed like a fire at her feet; and she was humming the strains of Zum reinen Wasser: “Where streams of living water flow, He to green meadows leadeth. And where the pastures verdant grow with food celestial feedeth.”

Leaning casually against the railing about four feet away, a distance he deemed friendly but not overpowering, Hill ventured: “I love Bach, myself.”

She stopped humming but was slow to tear her eyes from the view. When she did, it was not to face him but only with a slight turn of the head, the eyes sliding into the corners, regarding him warily, the color suddenly blanched from her cheeks.

After a moment, the tension left her shoulders and her eyes crinkled wryly. “Truly,” she said. It was not a question and it rolled between them like a ball of butter spiked with carpet tacks. The accent was American, like his own. Thirty years of savoir-faire melted and Hill was a fuzz-faced lout from Denver again, all elbows and size-16 shoes.

“One of his loveliest . . . ” he managed to stammer, “his finest cantatas. I heard it performed there . . .,” he nodded across the water to the cathedral, “the second Sunday after Easter. Two years ago.”

“Such a memory!” She wasn’t going to give him an inch. A cold wind came up-river, wrapping her skirt around her calves. She had beautiful ankles above a pair of expensive-looking pumpkin-colored snakeskin heels. He raised his eyes and found her grinning.

“Well? Do you have me all sorted out yet?” she asked pleasantly.

Time for pure out-West charm–ingenuous, all-man, no-horseshit.

“Listen,” he said, “I know just from looking that you and I are as different as hogwire and harpstring. But if you’re not otherwise engaged, I’d be honored to take you to an early supper.”

Her eyes took on a vague, unreadable look. She gazed searchingly over his shoulder toward the Left Bank. Then, to his amazement, they lit with a friendly twinkle. She grinned again and said, “Okay! As long as we eat here,” nodding behind her toward Île Saint-Louis.

“Dear lady . . . whatever your heart desires!” Stooping, he retrieved her coat and held it open for her gallantly.

. . . .

Javier: Northern California: 1992

Deep oak woods were wrapped in thick moss and rich in the umber scent of rotting leaves. An incandescent evening sky, apricot and electric blue, was snagged in a net of bare, black branches as Javier tramped, weighted by heavy clothes and muddy boots, his nose red and numb, his hands numb, too. His chest was tight: too cold for deep breathing, yet he was warmed down deep by some rising sense of transformation. Winter was in the land, but spring was rousing early in his heart. Fragile hopes flittered in the wintry dusk, sparks of summer glimmering on heavy, settled air. Winter was not death, as so many poets would have it. No, not death, but the tremblings of resurrection, rooted like the wildflowers already stirring beneath the snow, kicking at their seed hulls for liberation.

Liberation! Javier plotted as he trudged through crusted patches of snow, imagining the hungry fed, the homeless roofed-over, children reading and laughing. As the west gleamed like the Second Coming or the End of the World, ravens winged by, black silhouettes on the fiery sky.

OOSA. USA. So damn cold! Where is the sun of Chiapas and Yucatan that makes the humidity rise and vines bloom? Here in the north the sun burned through the black oak woods like the imperious eye of God, vermilion and gold, not caring if it warmed. And it had a message, as if it were written on a card and dangled on the thin, cold thread of the wind: It has to be done. It cannot be avoided. There is no turning back.

The sun was sinking fast, its curved bottom edge slicing into far indigo hills like a scimitar into flesh. The light was both more brilliant and more somber. The woods hunkered like a vast animal already camouflaged in night–not menacing but mysterious, all to themselves, not knowable, as was the way of all wild things; as was his own way.

He was divided between this awareness and other visions: Paris all aflame; London hanging the Lord Mayor; mobs in the streets of Santiago; American guerrillas lurking in the woods, awaiting the Red Coats.

Revolution. Others had done it. And now, Mexico. Again.

The land reforms of the past revolution were ineffective now. In Mexico City, the most populous, diseased, polluted place on the planet, people were packed like stockyard animals into dismal slums. Bad water, little food, violence, drugs, despair and death. Not the birthright Villa, Zapata and Cardenas envisioned back when the land was divided and the great estancias broken up into ejidos–community-held, farmable plots for the common man.

The sun cut deeper into the mountains’ flesh as his boot heels struck the frozen crust of snow with the report of small arms fire. In the woods, something big moved quickly and silently. A gato montés? A deer? His stomach felt empty and light; hungry, but also as if it would never accept food again.

This was the day, or never. This was the time and place, although it had always seemed to him a thing of the future. Now, the future had arrived and his life was no longer an endless stream of days. From now on he must live each day, hour, breath as if it were his last, all assurances of a long existence erased from his Book of Life. He would be like that nameless creature that moved in the shadows just now: both hunter and hunted.

on October 17 • by

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