Demons of the River
Alex M. Frankel
Alex M. Frankel
Alex M. Frankel was born in San Francisco, attended Columbia University and lived in Barcelona for many years before finally settling in Los Angeles. He writes both poetry and fiction, and in 2006 got his MFA in Poetry from New England College. His stories, poems and reviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Antioch Review, Chautauqua, The Gay and Lesbian Review, The South Carolina Review, Cider Press Review, and many other journals. His poetry chapbook, out February 2013 from Conflux Press, is called My Father's Lady, Wearing Black. He hosts the Second Sunday Poetry Series at the Majestical Roof Gallery in Pasadena. His website is alexmfrankel.com.
A lone boy in combat fatigues gripping a submachine gun was standing guard down by the pool. He smiled bashfully and waved up at Capdevila, but Capdevila did not wave back; instead, he pulled his head in, closed the window, and went on watching his daughter with his sad, tired eyes. She hadn't moved for two days. All she did was sit there gazing at the bay and the sky. She wouldn't accept water, and she didn't talk or sleep.
Physically, there seemed to be nothing wrong with her, although Capdevila refused to call a local doctor and make sure. He wanted to get her back to Spain—or anywhere away from this tropical hell. The Capdevilas had been about to make a move when word had come that the hotel was under military control and all guests would be confined to the premises.
He sat on the bed and tried speaking to his daughter. "Marina," he said. "We want to help you. Tell us what it is you're going through. Tell us what happened at the Falls that day. Share with us. Marina, can you hear?"
The girl's features didn't react. She was not grim or sullen. Rather, she had a contented, placid look about her—and this frightened Capdevila the most.
His wife, Matilde, was sitting near him on another bed, next to their son. She was watching her husband and shaking her head. The boy, Jordi, was seventeen and obese. He usually smiled and giggled, but now he did neither.
"Let us in, love," said Capdevila. "If you have some trouble, we will listen." Then he thought of something, and his voice turned light and optimistic.
"Marina, remember the story about the three fellows trying to get into heaven? There's a Catalan, a Madrileño and an Andaluz. The Catalan rings at the gate first—"
"I don't think telling her jokes will do any good," Matilde broke in, as gently as she could. "We should go downstairs, we should—"
"You go if you have to," said Capdevila, without taking his eyes off his daughter.
Matilde got up and went over to her husband. "She is utterly alone. We have to accept it." She hesitated. "Pasqual, something . . . when I was her age I went through something and maybe it would help if I told you about it. It was a kind of mystical experience."
He looked up from the bed, and his eyes were very sad. "What are you saying to me?"
"We'll go downstairs and I'll tell you the story. I've never told a soul."
He waved her away.
"Pasqual," she said. "I need to tell you what happened to me a long time ago and it just might make a difference and I've got to get out of this room, Pasqual!"
Again he waved his hand contemptuously, but this time he got up.
He went to the closet in the adjoining room and pulled his jacket off the hanger. "Call us if there's any change," he said to Jordi. "We'll be in the Champagne Room."
The hall felt uncomfortably sticky: what had happened to the air-conditioning out here? A gecko scuttled along the thick blue carpet with the gold fleur-de-lys pattern. It moved so gracefully that at first Capdevila mistook it for a floater in his own retina. The guard by the elevators grinned at the Capdevilas and said a quiet "Hi." They nodded and went to wait by the window. This Asiatic city was a nightmare of high rises and shanty-towns. Capdevila couldn't understand what had moved him to bring his family along this time; it should have stayed just a business trip, and he should have realized that trouble could erupt at any moment in such a lawless country. Yet this city's temples, parks, and waterways were praised all over the world. One gem could be found right next to the hotel, and they were looking down at it now. It was a garden in which all the bushes had been trimmed, with immaculate precision, to impersonate animals: green lions, green hippos, green elephants. The Capdevilas had already captured this menagerie on film (and video tape), which was just as well, since the garden was now in the process of being ruined by soldiers. A tent had been pitched right in the middle of it, and the lawn was covered with litter. Further away, the Capdevilas saw tanks, armored personnel carriers, jeeps; all over soldiers were milling around, their hands clutching their weapons.
The rebelling general controlled about one quarter of the city and had made their hotel—the Marco Polo—his headquarters. About twenty people had died during the first day of the revolt, including some children caught in cross fire. On the news the Capdevilas had seen the decapitated body of what had been a little boy. But the general himself came across as a simple, benign old man. It was hard to square the image of this nice grandfather with that of the headless boy.
When Capdevila and his wife arrived in the lobby, they saw once again how a genteel way of life was deteriorating further into boot camp. They smelled, these soldiers; they did not go with the chandeliers; Matilde breathed through her mouth.
"Mr. Capdevega!" welcomed the maitre d'.
The Champagne Room still kept up appearances. The air-conditioning worked well here, and as they were led to their usual booth a harpist in the center of the room played Boccherini's "Minuet." The restaurant was packed: there were Arabs, Europeans, Japanese, a few North Americans. Through a small opening in the curtains, Capdevila could see the pool area and two girls shaking off their long blond hair and chatting with the bloated pool attendant.
"Now," said Capdevila sleepily, his elbows on the table, his fingers massaging his temples, "would you like to tell me about this—what did you call it?—mystical experience?"
She lit a cigarette, looked at him. "We'll order first, all right?" It was intolerable to her that someone might break in on her story. It seemed life's most crucial conversations were always interrupted by waiters.
He shrugged. Beyond his wife's hair he couldn't help noticing the two girls out by the pool. They were gathering up their things, but the attendant wanted to keep talking to them. "Couldn't be more than nineteen," he thought. "Probably American or German. Lots of Germans everywhere. Ah, Hildegaard and Sieglinde! Their fathers perhaps have business here, like me, and wanted their families to see a bit of the world. I bet they never dreamed they'd be caught in a mess like this. Rather courageous of them to be outside."
They ordered, even though neither had much of an appetite; but dinner wouldn't be served for another five hours and there was nowhere else to get provisions.
Matilde looked down at the tablecloth. "You know, it makes me ashamed, a little, talking about it. It happened so long ago. And we were traveling then, too, I mean when the thing happened. I was in Austria with my family. It was in a village by a lake. We were walking in the churchyard and the graves were beautifully tended—"
Capdevila jumped up and shook his friend's hand. Wong was a local businessman who'd been about to drive them to the airport when the hotel was stormed. He'd been obliged to take a room, like a foreigner, and wait out the coup, cut off from his family. Capdevila invited him to join them.
"Any news?" he asked Wong.
"I just listen to BBC World Service on shortwave," Wong told them in Spanish, "and it look like Americans move in. Prime Minister have been to touch Mr. Reagan. But if you asks me, mistake. It no look good have Yanks in here. Of course, hotel one hundred percent secure, like I tell you before. Like home here, no? I pass all my time playing mah jongg in grand ballroom with men from Rotary Club—they were having meeting when rebellion start. Good this restaurant keep going smooth-like. Forty huge cats live in kitchen to keep the rats away. Cleanest restaurant in capital. And your little girl? Is better?"
"No is better," said Capdevila, taking a sip of water. "Is much the same."
Jordi lay back and picked up his Solo Moto. He'd brought it all the way from Barcelona and knew the contents of the magazine by heart, though he could never tire of looking at the pictures. In their country house he already had a little Suzuki, which his father had bought for him second-hand when he was only fourteen. But now he was seventeen and Papa had promised him a bigger bike. Jordi had his heart set on a Harley. He loved the detailed pictures of the huge silver engine; he loved the bike's dazzling chrome-plated body. Jordi dreamed of riding through Barcelona on a sweltering summer day—his father had to keep his promise—the model he liked only cost about a million-and-a-half pesetas and Papa could afford it.
He reached into a bag and took out some more potato chips. He put them in his mouth and looked over at his sister. She did not appear to be suffering. Her hands folded on her lap, she looked out the window at the coconut palms and beyond them at the big freighters in the bay and the baroque cloud formations in the sky, her eyes moving serenely over these objects as if she were observing them from a world to which no human had access.
The day of the excursion to the Falls, she'd gone off in a canoe without him. He'd refused to go along: he'd been afraid that people would stare at him, and with his excessive weight he might not be allowed on board anyway. So he'd just waved to her as she sat down in the middle of a canoe manned by two natives, and then he'd gone off to the restaurant to flip through his motorcycle magazine. He'd fallen asleep in a wicker chair overlooking the river. When he woke up, she was standing in front of him—very changed. She wouldn't speak. Her camera was gone. She walked back to the bus like a sleepwalker. And the whole trip back to the city she'd just sat there, and then she'd walked straight up to the room and sat down in a chair by the window. And now two days had passed—two days—and she was still sitting.
Jordi dug into the bag and brought another handful of chips to his mouth; food soothed, but he was bored. He opened the nightstand drawer and discovered a book, The Teaching of Buddha. The Capdevilas' two rooms here had come with many extras—extravagant floral arrangements, personalized stationery—but Jordi had never noticed the book.
On the cover, a setting (or rising?) sun lay nestled in clouds dyed orange and yellow. He opened to a random page. "The world, indeed, is like a dream and the treasures of the world are an alluring mirage! Like the apparent distances in the mirror, things have no reality in themselves, but they are like heat haze." Jordi's English was good enough for him to understand the individual words, but he couldn't piece together meanings. He opened to another page. "Times of luxury do not last long, but pass away very quickly; nothing in this world can be long enjoyed." He skipped down a few paragraphs: "From time infinite incalculable numbers of people have been born into this world of delusion and suffering, and they are still born. It is fortunate, however, that the world has Buddha's teachings and that men can believe in them and be helped. . . Just as the pure and fragrant lotus flower grows out of the mud of a swamp rather than out of the clean loam of an upland field, so from the muck of worldly passions springs the pure Enlightenment of Buddhahood. . ."
A giant cockroach was scouting around the floor by the bed. Jordi dropped The Teaching of Buddha right on top of the monster. Then he knelt down, picked up the book, and studied his work. The cockroach had been flattened, but its hard head still moved and one of its antennae swayed slightly. Jordi wondered if it would burn. He took a piece of stationery from the desk and managed to slide it under the squashed insect. He brought it into the bathroom, put it down by the wash basin, and tried to set it on fire. It wouldn't burn—too many wet guts hanging out, he supposed. He lit another match and tried again. The head caught fire for a half-second. Then he had an idea.
Papa had wanted to use humor with Marina, but now Jordi might succeed in rousing her with the help of the demolished creepy-crawly. So he slid it back on the paper and brought it out to his sister. He stood in front of her, blocking her view of the bay, but she kept on staring as if he wasn't there. Then he dumped the roach on her lap. Greenish guts soiled her white hands—she did nothing. Something was wrong—she was usually terrified of bugs.
And so he panicked. He wanted to touch her. He reached out to stroke her cheek. But as his hand got closer, it was held in check by something. His fingers began to twitch. It was as if she gave off some kind of force. His hand couldn't touch her, but neither could he remove it. The twitching rippled through his whole body. He began to relax; it was like sleep. He was entering the other dimension that she had inhabited since the day at the Falls. He heard ringing in his ears; his eyes closed and an overwhelming light shone into them. He was floating with her in her world.
"Situation," Wong was saying, "complicated. General Gardwina come from south. People from south very poor, and very strict Buddhist. Regime Buddhist, too, but not so much, so Gardwina has southerners support him, and also there are important Christians and Hindus here that don't like government either, they say it corrupt, too friendly with Reagan and Americans. And also many militaries not happy. Gardwina speak for these people. This is situation in my country."
Capdevila's eyelids were drooping. He was nodding out of politeness; it looked as if in a moment he'd be nodding off. Matilde was glad that Wong was ignoring her, leaving her free to think.
She examined her nails. She needed a manicure; unfortunately, the beauty parlor had been shut since the beginning of boot camp. But Matilde was worried about more than her nails. To be sure, the violence and the serious trouble were taking place several miles away from the hotel, but still. . . Surely this wouldn't go on much longer. The Americans, or someone, would come in and settle things, and the Capdevilas would fly back home to safe Barcelona. And yet there had been talk that guests might soon be confined to their rooms. She would never be able to bear that, not with her claustrophobia. Once, Wong had used the word "hostages" and she had gone pale. Of course this wasn't anything like a hostage crisis: everyone was going out of their way to be polite.
When she was sure Capdevila's eyes were fixed on Wong, she turned and got a glimpse of what her husband had been looking at earlier. Ah! Two of them chatting with the pool attendant. "Swedes," she thought. "I noticed them the first day. Probably older than they look. Probably twenty-five, twenty-seven. When my hair has been highlighted it's exactly that color, and freshly washed it's just as full and silky."
Matilde poked at her food. The first evening, Pasqual had gone out alone with Wong. She had woken up in the middle of the night and had seen that his side of the bed was still empty. "Wong took me to a revolving restaurant on the other side of town," he'd tried to explain the next morning. "I should say, a revolting restaurant. The shellfish was served raw and some of the feelers were still trying to move about! The only good part was the view. Then Wong insisted we go bowling. Bowling of all things! It's so popular here, you know. He got drunk and played beautifully. I was a disaster, I'm afraid."
"Sure," Matilde had thought, "bowling at two in the morning."
"And what about the health risks at those bordellos Wong takes him to?" she wondered. "Does he use rubbers there?"
The image of Marina sitting by the window came back to her. She knew Pasqual was devoted to his daughter. Jordi had been a disappointment to him, but he doted on the girl; he spoiled her, smother-loved her, and yet he didn't understand her at all: she had inherited her mother's spirit. Matilde's roots were in Andalucía—nothing to do with staid Cataluña. And now her daughter was taking after her. Pasqual, dull and ossified, immersed in business, never took notice of the girl's inner life. But he'd been different once, at twenty-six. He'd been strong, even magnetic. On Sant Jordi's Day that year he'd presented her with the traditional rose, and she'd given him two books, Career and Corporation and Corporate Etiquette; and that same day he proposed. He'd been young and romantic and it hadn't mattered so much that no interesting or original ideas would ever spring from his head.
She looked at Wong. He was Pasqual's age but thanks to his beautiful skin he looked younger. Unfortunately, his breath smelled like a bagful of rotting meat left sitting in the kitchen too long. She wondered what it was like to sleep with an Asian man; she'd heard they were small, and wondered what it felt like when it went in. Wong was youthful and cheerful, but he was as boring as her husband. He might as well have been Catalan.
Jordi opened the door; his parents rushed in. He waited for them to get their hands near Marina and enter the trance, just as he had. They knelt by the girl and hugged her. Nothing happened.
Papa approached him. "What is that bug doing on her lap? What is that thing doing on your sister's lap?"
"And to think the boy is almost eighteen years of age—he behaves like eight!" said his mother.
"It doesn't matter now," Jordi said, facing his father. "I used it to try to rouse her. But listen. She took me along with her. And it was beautiful. I entered the place where she is—because she isn't with us anymore. Something must have happened at the Falls! She is somewhere beyond, and this is just a body. In my trance I climbed up magically inside a huge waterfall and then we were in the clouds and above them!"
Capdevila was dumbfounded.
He yawned. He would have liked to have a newspaper to bring him to the threshold of unconsciousness—Capdevila liked prolonging that last half-hour of delicious exhaustion. It was his favorite time of day. Problems seemed to dissipate, or at least he could be optimistic about them. Tonight he was optimistic about Marina's snapping out of whatever she was in and their getting back to Barcelona in one piece. She was still sitting by the window in the room next door, but she'd be all right. Life would resume its normal course.
He yawned and picked up The Teaching of Buddha—it was the only reading matter around. He turned to a page in the middle of the book. "There is an allegory that depicts human life. Once there was a man rowing a boat down a river. Someone on the shore warned him, 'Stop rowing so gaily down the swift current; there are rapids ahead and a dangerous whirlpool, and there are crocodiles and demons lying in wait in rocky caverns. You will perish if you continue.' In this allegory, the 'swift current' is a life of lust; 'rowing gaily' is giving rein to one's passion; 'rapids ahead' means the ensuing suffering and pain; 'whirlpool' means pleasure; 'crocodiles and demons' refers to the decay and death that follow a life of lust and indulgence. . ." "A little silly, all of this," he thought, and turned to another page: "From time infinite incalculable numbers of people have been born into this world of delusion and suffering, and they are still being—"
No, too much, reading theology in English. He went back to the first page: "Dear Hotel Guest: The Buddhist Promoting Society and the Management of this Hotel would appreciate your cooperation in returning this book to its original position after use. The book is available for sale at the places listed below." He looked at the back flap of the book's jacket and in his head began making translations from the local currency into money he could understand. Ah, so it cost 1,400 pesetas! He counted the number of hotels where the books were being sold, and estimated that they were making at least 200,000 pesetas a week on these things. "Mare meva! The yellow peril!" he thought. His eyelids were drooping low. He was aware of Matilde, finished in the bathroom, slipping into bed. And Hari Krishna loonies were chasing him down Las Ramblas. He tossed five-thousand peseta bills behind his back hoping they could be bribed or distracted. It didn't work. They were catching up with him, chanting their infernal music—he covered his ears—help!—the ecstatic shaved heads nudged closer—he recognized Marina and Jordi among them. . .
Pasqual was talking in his sleep: "No, no!" And he was waving his arms. Matilde put down The Teaching of Buddha and looked at him. He screamed, jumped up, suddenly awake. They stared at each other. "The crazies are coming for me," he said, still dazed.
She watched him climb out of bed, go to the liquor cabinet and pour himself a glass of cognac. He came back and sat propped up against his pillow.
"We'll be all right, no?" she asked him.
"I don't know, now."
She sighed. In the distance she could hear the crackle of what had to be gunfire.
"Matilde," he said, putting down the glass, having finished its contents. "You had something to say to me before. I'm afraid we were interrupted. I want to hear it, please."
Matilde was glad it had come from him. She emerged from under the sheets, sat in the middle of the bed, and lit a cigarette.
"You were in Austria," he said.
"Yes, Austria." She wondered whether she could tell this story. She would try. "We were traveling. It was my first time abroad. We'd come from Vienna and were on our way to Zurich, and we stopped for four nights in a town on a beautiful lake in the Alps. It was the loveliest spot I'd ever seen. Majestic mountains towered over the lake, and its cold blue waters reflected them back. After we were settled in our hotel, we went for a walk, and we came to a Catholic church. First we walked through the tiny churchyard, among the well-tended graves. But you're sleeping!"
"My eyes may be shut, but I'm following everything. I see the well-tended graves. Go on."
Could she?—if he was going to be snoring in a minute!
"And by this churchyard stood the charnel house. We walked into that cold cell-like place, and saw a huge pile of skulls in front of us. Some of them were perfectly preserved, with teeth intact. These skulls could have been white stones—I'll never forget the noseless grinning bald objects. I could hardly believe these things had once been living human beings doing human things—breathing and walking around and being alive. My older brother opened his Michelin guide and explained to us that they dug up the graves here after twenty years, and put them in the charnel house, or the bone house, as they say in German. My two brothers—you know them. They were soccer-crazy, motorcycle-crazy, girl-crazy kids then, and never gave a thought to death, so the bones meant nothing to them, and soon they walked out. My parents lingered with me for a while, but then they, too, were gone, and I was alone with the bones. They fascinated me, troubled me. I even touched one of them. Death became tangible! So all our dreams and all our plans ended—so simply! I left the charnel house and walked into the church and sat down. And there was the image of Christ in front of me, and on the big altarpiece was a painting of the Virgin, and it was then that it hit me: there was something else, something bigger than life and death. I saw that my little world of family and school projects and dances was not the real world, that there was another world lying behind it that I hadn't discovered. For the rest of our stay in that village I sat on the grass gazing up at those magnificent peaks, and I wanted the beauty of what I saw before me to be in myself, and I wanted it to be lasting, and so I decided to take the veil. I didn't tell anyone. I was fifteen years old. You know how you make resolutions when you're young and it's summer and you're far from home. We went back to Barcelona. To hard-working bourgeois Barcelona. The years passed. I met you."
His eyes were open. He was staring at her.
"When we first went out," she said, "I realized your world was so simple and healthy and normal. I loved your black hair and your great brown eyes. None of my abnormal little mystical quirks would have fit in. I forgot all about them, until the day before yesterday, when Marina came back from the Falls. She must have seen her own bone house. We must give her time."
He looked at her in wonder.
Sleep would not return. In the darkness he heard Matilde snorting and wheezing, and he envied her. He'd been a good sleeper all his life. What was happening?
It seemed impossible, what she had told him. She'd never given a thought to anything in life but hair and skin and possessions. He had no wish to know this new person trying to emerge from beneath a beautifully normal surface. And this macabre talk of skulls! What did it mean?
Capdevila thought back with a sense of guilt to the first night. Matilde and the kids had gone to bed, and Wong had taken him to a bar. It was one of those establishments where the ratio of young native girls to middle-aged foreign businessmen was about fifty to one. That night Capdevila drank too much of the local beer. Wong put his hand on his shoulder and said, "Imagine, policy here you pay girl what you like. Just give her five dollar if you want!" "You no serious!" he said to Wong, and already a nymphet was eyeing him from the other end of the counter. Later, he had to pay the manager thirty dollars for drinks and another thirty for the privilege of taking her out of the bar. Then he and the girl spent half the night in a taxi looking for a motel with a vacancy. It was Saturday night and everything was full. The girl could hardly speak English (when he asked her age she confidently replied, "Ninety-one") and spent most of the time in consultation with the driver in her own language. "They're in cahoots," Capdevila thought. Finally they arrived at a dark out-of-the-way motel and were met by an unsmiling little man who wanted fifty dollars an hour for a room. The five-dollar fantasy was costing well over a hundred by now, but it didn't matter. Capdevila took a shower with the girl. She'd seemed very anxious for him to shower. Under the flowing water he put his tongue in her mouth and saw her gaze shifting to different points around the bathroom even while he was kissing her. Was she overwhelmed or merely bored? When they stepped out of the shower they were both shivering but neither of them could find the controls for the air-conditioner. They searched the room frantically, both freezing, until gradually they warmed up and it didn't matter anymore. At least the search had brought them together in laughter. An hour later he gave her ten dollars and they shared a taxi that dropped her off half-way to the Marco Polo. When he said good-night she didn't even look at him.
"It was shameful, all of it," he said to himself, lying in bed. "Shameful to everyone. To myself. And now I am paying the price."
Daylight peeping through slits in the drapes discouraged him from trying to go back to sleep. Angrily he got up and, for want of anything else to do, turned on television. And what he saw made his blood run cold.
It was a close-up shot of Marina's head, resting on a pillow. A gash ran over her right eyebrow; it was a startling crimson. He had not known such a deep crimson existed in the color spectrum. Her face was an extreme white; her eyes were half open and she was giving her father a strange look. And her mouth was open, but too wide, as if frozen in the middle of a yawn. Capdevila stood in front of the set transfixed. "No, this can't be you, you are sitting in the other room," he whispered, and cautiously lifted his hand and brought it to the screen. Instead of coming into contact with the expected glass and static, he felt something moist on his fingertips. It was Marina's ice-cold blood. He reached further into the screen and put his hand under her head, wanting to lift it, but it was stiff and resisted. He heard loud ringing in his ears and saw fog rising all around him, and he was sitting behind her in a fragile canoe. They were traveling on a river. A brawny youth rowed in front of Marina and kept jumping out of the canoe to guide it through the rapids. The air was unbearably sultry. Around them rose gigantic cliffs overgrown with green. Capdevila heard jubilant birds calling from the trees.
"Marina, you will burn. Take some of this."
She took the lotion and smeared her face and her forearms. She handed back the cream, and he tenderly dabbed the nape of her neck, which she always forgot. He plunged his hand into the brown river for relief from the heat, but it felt like bath water. He was thirsty. He wasn't enjoying this outing to the Falls and wished he were back at the Marco Polo. He didn't like the boy exposing his naked hams to his little girl at such close range. But at least Marina was feeling herself again—no more solitary vigil by the window! But wasn't the excursion to the Falls an event of the past? And hadn't she gone alone with her brother? And why were they back here now? But the main thing was that Marina was happy. She took a picture of a waterfall that wet them both with the outermost sprays of its might and left them cool and refreshed for a moment. She'd used up eight rolls of film on this trip. Capdevila tried to calculate how much it would cost him to develop them in Barcelona. Perhaps it would be cheaper to have it done here. And suddenly they were being knocked around by strong rapids. He held on tight. The boy jumped out and negotiated the vessel between rocks. Just then Capdevila spotted the two most colorful birds he had seen in his life. It seemed they were graced with all the colors of the rainbow; were these birds of paradise? Marina would know. He was going to point them out to her when he realized that she'd already seen them—she was rising, trying to get a shot of the unearthly beings. "Marina!" he shouted, "watch—" But she lost her balance—the canoe capsized—she fell against a rock, and sank, and he saw her hair being rushed away in the white water. Capdevila splashed around looking for her, half drowning himself, but before he could find her the youth had him pinned down and was shouting: "Try to save yourself! It's too late for her!" He struggled to break free, but the boy was stronger than he looked. Capdevila had lost her.
He woke up waving his arms, released. Then came a moment of joy: so he'd only dreamed all that, and nothing had gone wrong at the Falls, and she was safe in the next room. In the half-light he made out his wife sleeping. Gaps in the drapes told him day was already well advanced. Quietly he got up. He had to make sure. His bare feet trod noiselessly on the thick-piled carpet. The air was uncomfortably, unnaturally cool. He was shaking. Was there a future?
He pushed open the door and stood in the other room. Jordi lay on his back in a deep sleep. Marina's bed was empty.
The chair by the window was empty.
Capdevila travels through the next hours of his life in a mist of stupefaction and helplessness.
He stands, with Wong, at the entrance of the longest room he's ever seen. At the remote other end, he can make out a little man sitting behind an oversize desk. Between Capdevila and this man hundreds of soldiers seem to be standing to either side. Slowly, he and Wong make their way past the troops towards the little man at the end. The scene would unnerve Capdevila if his whole mind were able to participate in it.
Sitting behind the desk, General Gardwina is oddly unimpressive. He is skinny and frail, and wears the uniform of an ordinary foot soldier—no decorations, no medals. He doesn't know English and addresses only Wong. The general looks humble, almost timid, but relaxed, sure of himself. Capdevila has never seen an important person look like this. And yet the man seems to give off some kind of glow which Capdevila can feel, even in the state he is in.
Wong and the General confer in their twangy-sounding language, and then Wong turns to Capdevila. "He find the story we tell miraculous. Telephone lines restore this morning and they confirm it. Your daughter, Marina—she dead three days ago in accident at the Falls. In that room up there, has been some being we don't know—no science, no logic to explain it. He express depth regret and say we may go there to view body. He let us go with convoy and some soldiers."
Capdevila looks down and his tears fall on the red carpet. The general rises and comes around to them. He leans forward and embraces Capdevila and speaks, looking right into his eyes in spite of the language barrier. Capdevila hears Wong's translation: "He say it's a tragedy but a miracle and he think you are man who now wake up. He say there's hope for you."
In the back of the limousine Capdevila sees very little. He is aware that Matilde and Jordi and Wong are with him, and that it takes hours to get from urban chaos into open country. All through the journey he is haunted by the face of the young native girl. He regrets that he can't remember her name. It was something long and hard to pronounce. He regrets not having given her two hundred dollars and asking if there was something he could do for her family. Maybe none of this would have happened if he'd been a little kinder.
And then he remembers that odd orange book he picked up last night: "Once there was a man rowing down a river. Someone on the shore warned him, 'Stop rowing so gaily down the swift current! There are demons—'"
He shuts his eyes, and opens them only when they have arrived at the village by the Falls.
Children swarm around the car, flatten dark noses against the glass, and he almost believes they can see through it, see through him.
They step out into the hot white day and, shielded from the children by the soldiers, are led into a Spartan whitewashed church.
"Not many Christian church left in this country," he hears Wong say to Matilde.
Slowly, they walk towards the altar and the coffin surrounded by flowers. The church is empty, and the altar and the colorful flowers—almost as colorful as the birds of paradise Marina wanted to photograph—get closer. He dimly remembers a life based on a close-knit family closed off to most of the world, summers in the summer house, rooting for Football Club Barcelona and season tickets to the opera, ski trips in the winter. . . They stop in front of the coffin.
Matilde and Jordi hold each other, and Capdevila gazes at Marina's face, disfigured by the purple slash over her right eye. The morticians sought to reproduce what they imagined would pass for "peace." But this is a sham: he saw the real peace for two days by the hotel window overlooking the bay. He does not try to touch the body's hands. He puts his arms around his wife and his son, and then he sees a door behind the altar, steps out, and is in the churchyard.
Two men with enormous hanging bellies are busy digging a grave. They pay no attention to him. He looks around and wonders if the bones are dug up after many years here, too, or if they are left sealed in the earth forever. The sun hits his face, and flies buzz. He can see miles and miles of rice paddies stretching far into the distance. He kneels down and weaves his hands through thick blades of grass. His nails claw the earth and he brings up dirt to his face. He rises, hears an excited volley of voices coming from inside the church. Matilde emerges and takes his hand, and Jordi stands in the doorway peering up at the sky.
"That was just news from the capital," Matilde tells him. "There was fighting this morning, after we left, and our hotel is half-destroyed. Don't you see? We are safe because she brought us here."
Capdevila stares at his wife's face and sees in it a girl bursting into bloom.