Read Tortuga Online

Authors: Rudolfo Anaya

Tortuga (24 page)

“… You are a lizard woman,” I remember saying.

“Yes … we'll live together in the sun,” she whispered.



She lay her head upon my chest and sang a lullaby, a song of love:

Sana, sana, colita de rana

Si no sanas hoy

Sanarás mañana

It was a song of peace … of love, a song which erased the dread of time and the past which had haunted me … Her long, dark hair wove a web, a web of dream in which I rested … from which I could see the waters of the mountain flowing into the river and winding their way south towards the sea … and the people of the water and the golden fish played in the gentle water …

On the shore of the river Salomón stood … and all his children stood around him, dancing like leaves in the wind, dancing like seaweed dances in swaying water … and he sang this song …

Once beside the stream of time and memory, Ismelda found a magic flute … the flute of a man who had crossed the desert to climb the magic mountain … She rested in the shade of the green juniper, and she sang a song of love … the wind played through the flute and made her moan … her lips were red and sweet with the juice of the prickly pear, the cactus fruit. The goats stood still and sniffed the air when they heard Ismelda's moan … the lizards sat quietly in the sun. Ismelda shuddered in her dream, a pleasant tremor of magic and love, a liquid-dream which made the mountain smile. She moaned again, covered herself with wild oak leaves and rested on the juniper needle bed, and slept and dreamed again of the lizard-man who came to lie by her side and taste the sweet, red juice on her warm lips …


Mike and Ronco came in early the next morning.

“How's it goin'?” Ronco asked.

“Okay,” I answered. Ismelda had come earlier in the morning and washed my hair and shaved the fuzz off my cheeks. I was still groggy from the drugs, but I felt good.

“You look skinny without your cast,” Mike said. They tried not to look directly at me, so we wouldn't have to talk about last night.

“Hairiest looking turtle I've ever seen!” Ronco laughed then cleared his throat. My hair had grown almost to my shoulders.

“Well, we'll see you in the ward tonight,” Mike said. “We'll have a party, celebrate—” They nodded, told me to take it easy, then raced out, shouting, “Algo es algo dijo el diablo!”

The nurse who worked the isolation ward came in with a breakfast tray and I sat up and ate. She placed a valentine card on my tray and smiled. “The girls in the ward sent you this … they hope you get better,” she said.

I had lost track of time; I had slept through Christmas and the new year, which meant the days were growing longer and we were headed into spring. I looked out the window and saw the sun shining. I ate the big breakfast, like a man who has not eaten in months, stuffing everything into my mouth at once, smacking the food with gusto, feeling the juices of my mouth mix with the eggs and bacon and cereal, feeling the hurt along the side of my jaws as the juices spurted and feeling the warm mixture which I washed down with milk grumble in my empty stomach. I ate ravenously, like a bear that has awakened in the early spring. I ate until my stomach bulged with food. When I was done I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes. I ran my hand over my chest and remembered the excitement of Ismelda's touch. My sensitive skin still tingled with her touch. I had lost my shell and now my skin was exposed to the acid in the air, as it had been exposed to her, and it felt good.

Ronco had said, he lost his shell and all the stories written on it …

Don't worry, he hasn't forgotten what he's seen and felt, Mike had answered.

“Salomón said I'd learn to sing, and I don't know what in the hell he means by that,” I said.

“What?” Dr. Steel asked.

I opened my eyes. He was standing by me. I smiled. “I was just thinking aloud,” I said.

“Well, you look pretty spruced up,” he winked. “Feel up to an x-ray?”

“Anything you say,” I nodded as he felt the muscles along the side and back of my neck and made me turn my head. The freedom of movement was exhilarating. I felt weak but there was no pain and there was enough strength so I could control the movement.

“Looks good,” he said then paused, sat by the side of the bed and looked out the window. “I have to write a report about what happened last night,” he said.

I thought awhile and then I said, “It was an accident. Can you just say it was an accident—” I didn't want to make it hard on him, but I didn't want to go into it. It had been my doing and now I wanted to forget about it and I didn't want crazy Danny to pay for what I had chosen to do.

“Okay,” he nodded and slapped my leg, “it's up to you …” He called Samson and Samson came in and lifted me on to the gurney and pushed me to the x-ray room. Kids on their way to therapy shouted greetings.

“Hey, Tortuga! How you doin'?”

“He don' have his shell anymore!”

“Oh myyy—”


“Hey, honey, when you goin' come and see me?” KC waved. I turned and waved back. She looked beautiful standing in front of the therapy room in her crisp, freshly-laundered uniform. There was a buzz of excitement in the air which I had not felt before; the air and the sounds were alive. Even the doctors on the way to surgery waved, one reached out and patted me. The hall was bright with sunshine.

The technician whistled while he shot half a dozen pictures, but one was all Steel needed to tell him I didn't need another cast.

“You're a free man, Tortuga. Bones have healed nicely … you don't even need a brace. How do you feel?”


“Ready to get back to therapy?”

“Anytime,” I answered.

“Let's start with a whirlpool bath … it'll get the soreness out.” He called KC and she and Samson took me into a small room with a big, stainless steel tub. They picked me up and sat me down in the tub. Then KC turned the tap and the hot, yellow pee of Tortuga came gushing out.

“How does it feel?” she asked as the water rose.

“Hot!” I shouted.

“It's nice and warm,” she smiled and ran her hand in the pungent mineral water. I inhaled the steam which rose up and felt it open up my lungs. “Breathe deep,” she said, “it's good for you.” She splashed the water on my chest and back and ran her dark hands up and down, carressing me, helping me get used to the strong water which filled the tub. “I like you better without your turtle shell,” she teased and massaged my neck and back muscles. She flipped a switch and the vibrator sputtered alive. The hot water boiled and churned around me. I went rigid and resisted and she whispered, “Relax, honey, relax. Flow with it … let it caress you, let it carry the weariness away …”

I relaxed and sank into the swirling water, leaving only my head above water to breathe, allowing my arms and legs to float up and down in the churning water. KC kept massaging until I closed my eyes, felt safe in the water, worked with it and let it ease the soreness out of my cramped muscles. She sang while she held me, sad and blue, but full of love.

I once had a lover

Who left me for another …

So I'm sittin' by the river

Just starin' at the water …

Her song became a part of the water … a part of memory. I, too, had been at the river, I too had seen the innocent girls of my childhood scatter throughout the land as they grew into womanhood … and that same Sunday I had met la Llorona along the river, on the path beneath the cliff … and in meeting that poor, wretched creature who filled my life of fantasy with dread I had discovered the other half of my dark soul … and I had realized that the loss of innocence belonged to me as much as to the first communion girls … and last night I had seen Ismelda by the edge of the water. She had stood on the beach and called me back from my journey … and that's why Tortuga's water had spit me out. I could not drown … I could only live, with the woman and the water, with the siren who always sang in the moonlight by the edge of the water … a thousand stories flooded by memory, I saw my past flash before me for the first time, and it was a past of whispered stories, cuentos told by the gaunt men and women of the sea of land, history and tradition wrapped in words which moaned with the terrible urgency of the wind, moaning my past and my destiny … words tying together past and present in the magic of the moment … holy water caressing the cripples of the desert we had created … forcing us to live not in its depth and darkness but in the light of the sun … water a million years in the making, full of the earth's strength, water from the heart and core of the earth … water as old as the earth, trapped in the dark bowels of earth, heated by the burning heart, gushing out in Tortuga's pee to cure us …

I laughed … loud and throaty … feeling alive and new, and I prayed for the water to wash into Salomón's wards and bathe his cripples … his vegetables. I gurgled with joy and laughed and wished they were with me, riding the crest of the waves, inhaling the salty, mineral fumes of steam, floating on the white foam which held me like the arms of Ismelda …

“That's it honey! Get it on! Get it on!” KC cried and pointed at my swollen tool, and we both laughed above the roar of the vibrator and the churning water.


Perhaps I can never love again never hold Ismelda in my arms again without holding the girl who lies wasting in the iron lung Perhaps the shadows which pursue me will drag me down into the pit of shrunken bodies and withered souls Never see a child run and play again without seeing the endless rows of crippled orphans the orphans of a world without love the innocent tortured by the hatred which lurks in all souls and pursues me in my nightmares

Perhaps not even Ismelda's magic can erase the memory of the dark wards the stench of the living dead the helpless creatures dying breath by breath

Perhaps I will never dance again Never laugh again

Perhaps I will never run and play again

Never love again

Never be free again

Perhaps the sun will never shine again never see the path again Only the black sun of Salomón's wards will guide me through the air stale with death cries of death

Perhaps I will never turn again, to see the shimmer of light on green leaves, to feel the cool breeze of summer touch my forehead, to learn to love again

My love is the love I brought with me from the dark wards a love unknown to you a love which you fear to draw into your heart

I will sleep eternally with the cripples of the desert share their bed eat their bread drink their water I will lie by their sides all my life as I touch you and caress your glowing skin

Perhaps that is my love a growing love a love you must reach to share

Perhaps you cannot love and touch our crippled bodies

Perhaps it is you who cannot walk in our dark wards and reach out to touch …

“God! Oh, God!” I panted and gasped for breath.

“You okay? You okay, Tortuga!” Mike shouted and shook my shoulders. “You were having a nightmare, that's all!” He rubbed my back; my hospital gown was soaked with sweat.

“A bad nightmare,” Ronco said and held out a glass of water. The water calmed my trembling.

“You were shouting about the ward—” Buck said and nodded in the direction of the garden. He was still bandaged like a mummy but he was sitting in a wheelchair, twirling a short rope and smoking a cigarette.

“Don't talk about that place!” Danny interjected. He was sitting in the corner pretending to leaf through comic books—he was still watching me carefully. He kept his rotten arm turned away from me because the disease was spreading up his neck and on to his face.

“We can't pretend they're not there,” Ronco said and looked at me, “not any more—”

“They're there, all right,” Sadsack spit, “and some of them have been hanging on to dear life for longer than any of us—”

“We knew they were there all along … we just didn't want to face it,” Mike said.

“Well it was better that way!” Danny shouted. “It was better to keep them hidden! They're nearly dead anyway! So why did he have to come along and remind the rest of us, huh?” He pointed an accusing finger at me.

“Maybe he didn't wanna go,” Buck said, “maybe he had to go—”

“That's true,” Mike agreed, “the way I heard Salomón tell it Tortuga
to go. He never made any of the rest of us go back there … for some reason he picked Tortuga …” He looked at me. I knew he understood part of the reason Salomón had chosen me. There was something in me that he could force to become the singer, the man who would not only feel the misery of the hell we lived in, but also return to sing about it.

“Anyway, why in the fuck do they have to keep them around?” Danny cursed. “They're better off dead!”

“I think they're here to tell us something,” I said, “to remind us of something—”

“What?” Danny exclaimed. His eyes bore into mine.

“I don't know,” I answered. “All I know is they're here to remind us of something … something we've almost lost …”

“You don't make any sense!” Danny scoffed.

“It makes some sense,” Ronco said, “because at least Tortuga went to see them. We had pretended they weren't there, then Tortuga came along and reminded us of all those poor vegetables. Now that's what's bothering us. We're blaming Tortuga for bringing all of this out in the open again—”

“Bullshit!” Sadsack protested.

“Yeah we are,” Ronco continued. “Listen, most of us weren't even listening to Salomón any more, then when Tortuga came we had to start listening to him again. A lot of the times we didn't like what we heard, but we had to listen. And Tortuga trusted Salomón, maybe he realized how smart that little bastard is … anyway, Tortuga at least was listening. He wanted to know about the wards; he kept asking—”

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