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Stirgil

By the great glowing bollocks of Jove, there was nothing to do, I swear it, and so I was resolved to go forth and make mischief upon the world and myself in my own familiar way. There was a tavern I knew, down by water, smelling of pine tar and pukings, and yet for all that it was an agreeable place to splay one’s frame and drink rum until the blood swims in the eyeballs. The sailors all come in with their tall tales of voyage and death and the all-night girls, brown and white and yellow like canaries, sweet ports for every battered ship—ah, how I love those yarns!—and of course the old familiar lies that really honestly happened to them and not the other fellow, The Piper in the Straw, The Girl Who Cried Hold, The Bare Ass at Daybreak, The Dairy Lass and the Manxman, and that old foolish favorite, The Gay Sailor and the Virgin Chocolatier. The barkeep there was a friend of mine, a grim fellow who had lost his nose in México, and for a silver dollar he would lift the dented tin hood that covered his face like a raven’s beak and reveal to the spectator a living skull that would frighten the shit out of a stone statue in daylight. O! Now that was a laugh for you.

I told my valet Squatley to run to the office to tell my secretary to tell my brother that I would be as indisposed in the afternoon as I had been in the morning (having been too asleep to welcome the arrival of midday) and to continue to run affairs without me as he had been doing since the death of our father four years ago. This arrangement suited us both, for though he looks on me with dim disapproving, I believe that this is his preferred state of mind anyway, as it affords him a certain pleased self-regard that might be absent otherwise. I filled my pockets with my little jade box and what cash monies lay closest to hand and sallied forth into the grisly light of day.

I elected to walk rather than ride to the south shore, the way being downhill and myself still sober, but I soon regretted the decision, as here in Belize City one’s path is always obstructed with horses, beggars, pedlars, perambulators, water carts, great steaming heaps of dung and casual acquaintances; I believe I was accosted by no fewer than four business associates, three after-dinner companions, two protégés and one maiden aunt, the last inviting me for dinner, which I politely declined, having already made plans to be drunk and unruly at that time. It is disheartening that in a city of this size a person will eventually come to know a full ninety per cent. of the population, seventy-five per cent. of whom were born tiresome and a full eighty-eight per cent. of whom are unsuitable for appeals for sexual intercourse due to blood relation, age, aesthetic flaws (height, girth, broken teeth, palsy, inconsistency of skin tone, et cetera), lack of imagination, excesses of religious fixation, or catastrophic inappropriateness of gender.

After a seemingly endless trudge, during which I calculated that I inhaled sufficient fresh air for the rest of the day and the night following, I arrived at the familiar grey, paint-peeled corner pressed hard between the shipwright’s office and the farrier. The door opens on naught but a stairway leading downwards, through which the aspiring drunkard must descend to a stone basement lit only by cracked pissedupon windows at scalp-height. Hard upon the left is the long mahogany bar, shaped from a tree which may well have been purchased from my family’s firm back in my father’s day; bitter tears he’d have shed had he known the fate of such a fine specimen, for it has been the buttress for any God’s amount of malfeasance and criminality. Behind this Jericho stood my noseless friend Sniffy, as he was called, though not to his face, such as it was. The plate over his nasal vacuum was buffed to a high polish, and at my appearance he produced a special bottle of rum in which certain local weeds had been steeped along with a green tumbler; I thanked him and crossed to my favorite table, the one beneath the vivid oil painting of a matador murdering a bull. The subject of the canvas is slender and smoothfaced; local tradition tells that the model was the infamous Clara María Suárez, professionally known as “Aboranto”, a mysterious lady bullfighter from the previous century who disguised her sex with men’s clothing both in the arena and without. The legend held that she ultimately eloped with the daughter of a nobleman, but after a stormy and confusing wedding night the bride returned home in tears and complained to her father about the deception. The nobleman’s retinue pursued Aboranto with the intention of capture and trial, but the young woman threw herself from the face of a cliff and was destroyed upon the rocks below. In any case, it was in this corner that it was my habit to sit and watch the souls of the underworld come and go, the unsteady travelers from the land above who, oppressed by the weight of the sun, had stolen away to quaff a dram of nighttime. For some these odd fugitive moments would lengthen into great lesions across the skin of time until the daylight world became an enemy state, hostile territory to be passed through on the way from one darkness to the next. Within this domain there existed a great confraternity of conspirators against the light, a second shadow world of shared jokes and alternate economies, all human standards adjusted for depth and lack of radiance.

On this day one individual attracted my attention in particular, a beefy man with a drooping moustache like a drowned cat and short no-color hair that may have once been blonde. His clothing I estimated to be of fair quality and recent cut but badly abused, and his face and forehead were ruddy and scarred by the sun. He had that arrogant yet childlike self-assurance common to Americans, like a little boy in short pants who struts into a neighbor’s garden party with his popgun and lolly. An adventurer down from some mountain, or in from the sea, I imagined, and as I watched him I could see him watching me, and so it was that we were watching each other. Finally he tipped an imaginary cap and I raised a real glass, and he took that as a sign of invitation, lumbering his way across the room with many side-glances. In the meantime I gave a quick nod to Sniffy, who showed that he understood my communication by demonstrating that a demonic Bowie knife was ready beneath the bar should there be any misbehavior from this particular specimen of humanity.

“Good health to you sir,” I said, pouring him a drink from my bottle as he sat down before me.

“Ah, you speak English. Thank God for that!” came the deep reply. He drained his glass, and I watched as his face convulsed while he expelled some malignant spirit from his lungs. “Jaypers, what’s in that stuff?”

“Nothing that would kill a sinner,” I said, pouring him another. “By the sound of your vowels I would guess you to be an American. Have you been long in our dreary little city, Sir?”

“I would ask you to disregard my vowels, sir, but no, I have only but arrived in this place.”

“I see,” I said, watching him closely. His eyes were like two rats wading in brine. “A cosy place, this, no? Convenient to both the waterfront and the brothels. When the air is still you can smell them both.”

My new friend looked about as if he had not properly observed his surroundings until that moment. “Good enough,” he said at last, then continued on in quieter tones. “In point of fact, I do not expect to be in the city long. I will be making my way into the interior very shortly.” He touched his nose.

A long pause and a knowing look suggested that he thought I knew what he was signifying, but this was far from the case. “I wouldn’t presume to ask what business you might be about, but if you are searching for gold or silver, I’m afraid you may be disappointed. The rivers here in British Honduras are…”

“Not from any river,” he interrupted.

“I don’t understand. Are you planning a career in banditry? Certainly the desolation of the jungle will keep you safe from capture by the authorities, but perforce you will also have fewer victims to rob. I can assure you, if the natives had anything worth stealing besides their trees, King George and the British Honduras Company would already be stealing it.”

“Gold, but not from any river,” repeated the man. “I am talking about the treasures of a lost age. Have you heard of the Maya?”

I informed him that I had in fact heard of this ancient people, as their exploits had achieved no small measure of renown in these parts.

“I have knowledge of a temple, a temple at a sacred place to the Northwest called Aoxoa, hidden and undiscovered deep in the jungle. The treasures found within are beyond the imagination.”

“I see. Where did you acquire this knowledge, if you’ll forgive me for asking?”

I expected my interlocutor to be coy with his answer, despite the fact that his information very likely came from the same traveling salesman who had sold Jack the magic beans, but his reaction was odder than even what I was expecting. His face twitched strangely, as if an imp were plucking at his brain matter like a Spanish guitar; finally he winced at some fearful thought and then simply blurted “no matter.”

“I was only curious because it seems to me that it would be odd that a person would pass this information on to you rather than take advantage of it himself—men being the mercenary animals that they are, present company excluded, of course.”

He looked back at me emptily for some time, and then finally said “no living person.”

“Say no more, my friend, I understand completely. Here you are, or should I say there you were, an adventurer in our pretty blue basin, casting about to see what you could lay your hand to. You strike up an acquaintance—much as we have done here—with some peculiar stranger, a fellow fortune-hunter, and perhaps with him you embark on some fascinating enterprise. But disaster strikes! Your friend is laid low—malaria, snakebite, a machete in the back—ah, the poor devil. With his last breath he beckons you closer, presses something into your fist—a treasure map drawn by Cortez himself, precious information tortured out of the brown devils, but information which the conquistador was unable to act upon because of pressing business elsewhere. And so down the centuries it passed from hand to hand, no one suspecting the incredible meaning of this tattered parchment, until, by the grace of Mammon, it fell into your waiting arms.”

“Something very like that,” said the American, “in fact you have just about hit upon it exactly.”

“And now you are venturing off into the jungle to rob some ancient Mayan cathedral. An excellent undertaking! I wish you good luck.”

“All I need is a backer, sir.”

“Aha!”

“A person to defray some of the expenses of the expedition; naturally that person would receive a share of the profits, which are all but assured.”

“But of course!”

“Perhaps you would be interested in such a business enterprise?” He leaned forward, his fish eyes wide and vibrating.

“I’m afraid I would be unable to participate in such a venture, as my capital is needed elsewhere.” I stood to leave.

“Ah, ah, ah, if I could just have a chance to explain a bit further, I’m sure I could convince you, sir. You see….”

He made to stand up as well but I stayed him with a hand on his shoulder. “Each of us has his own treasure to pursue, my friend. In fact I must seek mine even now. This very night I hope to see something golden and precious beyond measure—perhaps a trifle to others, but to me, all. I venture on alone, as every man must do in the final end. Eris be with you. I bid you a safe journey.”

As I walked away I could sense at my back a seething agitation, some animal emotion that threatened to tear the surface, but already I was ascending the stairs and breaking through the doors into the horrible, horrible daylight.

* * *

I did indeed have serious enterprises before me: that evening found me in the Grand Holzusz Theatre assaying a traveling company’s performance of Don Giovanni and clandestinely munching on a certain infamous jungle fungus named “The Door of Patmos.” The theater, which was supposedly built on the site of an ancient cursed ball court, was decorated with a bastardization of Mayan temple artwork, the proscenium arch a riot of plaster whorls and faces, the audience dwarfed by giant glaring warriors painted upon the walls in profile, the fresco overhead an exploding sun with concentric rings of multicolor angles and diamonds. My coign of vantage was the family box seat, which was styled to resemble a bulbous stone carving of Kinich Ahau, myself in the great grinning maw like a wobbly tooth.

I had been present for the previous night’s performance and those of the week before as well. The music itself was a desperate sawing and warbling, notes flying in every direction to collide with each other in remote unlovely alcoves…voices cracked, strings broke with a cacophonic twang, the man in charge less a conductor and more a truant officer. It mattered little to me; I was there to see, not to hear. It was an actress, of course: the Elvira. She was like a light shining upon the stage—young, terribly young—as shy as a fawn to be out in the open before so many eyes, her voice filling a room of empty ears, but perhaps also thrilled with the realization that the curve of her bosom peeping over satin could stop the men’s breath in their throats, that they might gaze in wonder at her, each pair of eyes reflecting the milk-and-honey curls that tumbled down and touched her cheek. Ah, that hair! How it squeezed softly between chin and bare shoulder when she turned her head away, how it coiled about her throat like the tail of a playful cat when she raised her face in defiance! And her hips! And her arms, the flesh so plump and smooth! Once a night she passed one of these perfect arms across her face in a moment of sorrow, bare inches away from her lips, and the thought of that tender friction drove me mad; I would picture it in the night, in those spaces of wakefulness, and then other meetings of her flesh, thighs rubbing together as she sat, or reclined….

I had contacted her, of course, sent her bouquets and sweets, silk gloves, perfume, eau de toilette, sent her passionate letters praising her beauty and skill. Finally I gained ingress, as they say; I had bribed the stage manager and revealed myself in her dressing room after her performance, showering her with gifts, explaining that I was her secretive admirer. I could see that she was frightened, trembling like a calf, but then also pleased with my appearance, I think; she was not being importuned by some terrible functionary—warty, bloated and wheezing, coal dye staining his hairline and trickling down his nape—but a gentleman with a fine coat and some recent memory of vigor and spring. I could see too that the little present of money I had sent the night before had softened her somewhat as well. On my part I felt one string of my heart sour and snap when I noticed, for the first time, a certain dullness in her eyes, as though I had opened some pricy and mysterious leatherbound tome only to discover it to be a dictionary, but at the same instant her physical grace and the smell of her skin shook me like a rat in a dog’s jaws. Briefly I considered forcing myself upon her there and then and afterwards paying whatever amount would assuage her chagrin, but then there was a flash of inspiration, and in a passionate rush I instead proposed a novel bargain to the girl. At first she was shocked, of course, and briefly I feared that she might faint away entirely, but after explanations, entreaties, declarations of amour and an upwards revision of the price offered she hesitantly and embarrassedly agreed; for tonight’s performance, she would appear on stage secretly and completely unencumbered by underclothing of any sort.

Now, in the theater, I watched my Elvira run in terror across the stage from Don Giovanni’s approaching fate, my imagination running riot, and I nearly collapsed upon my chair thinking of her pale pink thighs swishing in that dark perfumed place under her costume. The ecstasy was brief, however, for that dreadful knocking rang out, the same knocking of last night and the week before, and now my heart began to crash about in my chest and I felt my palms wet with perspiration. It was the statue of the commendatore, and he would not be denied! Quand don Juan descendit vers l’onde souterraine…. Before, the costume had seemed paltry and ridiculous to my eyes, but tonight—no doubt due to the purple and gold mushroom I had consumed earlier—the grey figure seemed to grow and vibrate, the bass voice booming out from the yawning mouth of the stage like the crack of doom. He locked his hands about Don Giovanni, stone fingers closing in upon throat, and now the fabric of what I saw suddenly rippled like cloth, and then torn along the seam came a great blazing hole. Fire licked upwards to the rafters, and with a bone-crunching grip of iron the great statue, now alive, dragged the mortal down through the floor. For a moment I thought I could see from my perch above the churning, boiling lake of fire skittering black imps dancing with knives, the howling flayed skin of faces still living screaming soundlessly as they stretched across leagues, naked humans beaten with chains, chips of flesh and blood singing through the air, and last a horrible mad devil exulting over all. Then down Don Giovanni went, straight down to Hell.

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