Read Tortuga Online

Authors: Rudolfo Anaya

Tortuga (5 page)

I was about to answer, but he was already gone. I just wanted to get somewhere and rest, I wanted to put everything in perspective and get a sense of where I was. But why did the girl Ismelda keep popping in and out of my thoughts. I had only been here a few hours and already met some crazy characters … what would the future hold for me? How soon would the doctor start the therapy? And how much movement could I recover from my legs?

I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the hospital. Somewhere dishes clanged and kids shouted to each other. From faraway I thought I heard the whimper of babies crying. Along the wall the steam radiators pinged and groaned as they swelled with steam. Overhead the cold wind moaned … and if I listened very carefully far beneath the frozen earth I could hear the sound of water, Tortuga's warm pee cutting new channels through the frozen wasteland …

Follow the river, Filomón had said, and yet even he seemed lost in the storms which racked us as we crossed the barren desert.

Wait till spring …

Pray to God, God's will be done …

I prayed, a million times I prayed, why the paralysis? Why me? What did I do to deserve this punishment? Why? Why? Why?

I awoke in a sweat. “Where am I?” I asked, and in the darkness I heard an answer, I heard someone moving around the gurney and for a moment I thought Danny had returned.

“Is this Tortuga?” the voice asked.

“Yes, he has come to live with us.”

“Filomón brought him.”

“Is he an orphan, like us?”

“Will he go to live with Salomón?” the voices whispered.

“Pray he doesn't, sister, but Salomón knows he's here.”

I thought I was dreaming. Dark figures shuffled around the gurney, wheelchairs squeaked. “Who's there?” I asked.

“Are you awake, Tortuga?”

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Your brothers and sisters,” came the answer.

Someone tapped on the cast, but because the gurney was high I couldn't see anyone. Then I felt a tug as an arm wrapped itself around my cast and pulled. At first I thought they were pulling me down and when the face of the girl appeared suddenly over me I realized she had pulled herself up. I gasped with fear. Her twisted face was gray and wrinkled, the face of an old woman. She drew closer and I saw the hump on her back. She was a small, deformed creature. She had clawed her way to the top of the gurney, now she smiled at me.

“Who are you?” I cried. Around me the others also squirmed their way up the side of the gurney, giggling and calling out, “Is that Tortuga?” “Does he look like Tortuga?” “Lemme see—”

“Yes, it is Tortuga,” the hunched back girl smiled. Her eyes were pale green in the dark. Her breath was sweet on my face, but her face was twisted and deformed.

“Who are you?” I cried again.

“Cynthia,” she whispered.

“Is he going to stay in our ward?” another one asked.

“Salomón will say,” she answered, studying me closely, curiously, and drawing closer and closer as if to kiss me.

“No!” I finally screamed as loud as I could, “Get away! Get away!”

“Shhh—” she tried to quiet me by placing her thin fingers over my mouth. “It's okay … we know …”

I gagged with panic, heaved and shouted again. “Get away! Get away! Don't touch me!”

They were swarming over me now, pulling themselves over the side of the gurney, their twisted gnome faces looming over me, whispering, giggling, poking at the cast, calling it a turtle shell, celebrating my arrival, vying for my friendship, then suddenly scattering as I shouted and cursed at them. They disappeared quickly, dropping off the gurney and scrambling away. I was still shouting when I felt Speed-o's hand clamp over my mouth.

“Shh—Hold it! What the hell's the matter with you, kid? You wanna wake the dead?”

“Freaks,” I gasped, “freaks—”

“Oh, that group,” he said and shook his head as he lit a cigarette. “That's Cynthia's group … they prowl the halls at night … know everything that goes on in this hospital … but they don't come out during the day … bad cases … but if you ask me the whole place is crawling with freaks …”

He pulled the gurney out of the corner and pushed it down the hall. Somewhere the sun was about to set because the pale ochre light which touched the high windows which faced the patio created a haze in the dim hallway. At the end of the hall he stopped at the nurses station and rang the bell on the counter. He paced nervously back and forth, muttering “I wonder where in the hell everyone is? I'm asked to deliver a body and there's no one waiting at the gate! This is your ward … but I wanna get back to that quickie I didn't finish. Nooooorse! New boy!”

“They're gone,” someone whispered.

“Where?” Speed-o asked.

“Supper.”

“And the nurse?”

“Chasing Danny.”

“What'd he do now?”

“Started throwing spagetti in the dining room. Big fight. Lots of fun.”

“For cryin' out loud,” Speed-o groaned. “I can't stand around and babysit this turtle man … he's gotta get to bed and I gotta get back to my beaver … Any empty rooms around here?” he asked the kid.

“Maybe up the hall, some—”

“Well let's go,” Speed-o said and pushed me hurriedly down the long, empty hallway. “We'll find you a room, ole buddy, we'll find you a nice and private place—”

We went deeper into the ward until he found a room without a name tag on the door, there he turned the gurney in and swung it alongside the only bed in the otherwise empty room.

“This will do fine,” he nodded. He grunted and pushed and managed to slide me off the gurney onto the bed. “Just fine, just fine,” he smiled and covered me with a sheet. “The nurse will be here in no time,” he smiled and smoothed back his slick hair. “I'll see you in the funny papers, Tortuga,” he winked and went out singing

If all little girls

Were like bells in a tower!

And I was the preacher

I'd bang them each hour!

Then the door clicked shut and I could only hear the echo of his song in the hallway.

The room was dark and silent. Through the window I could see the top of the mountain, glowing magenta as the winter clouds lifted long enough to let the setting sun shine on its back. The gigantic mass of boulders seemed to breathe with life as the color grew a soft watermelon pink then salmon orange. The light glowed from within the mountain as Tortuga seemed to lift his head into the setting sun … he turned to look at me, another crippled turtle come to live at his feet. The rheumy eyes draped with wrinkled flaps of skin bore into my soul and touched me with their kindness. For a moment the mountain was alive. It called to me, and I lay quietly in my dark room, hypnotized by the sight. Now I knew what Filomón had meant. There was a secret in the mountain, and it was calling me, unfolding with movement and power as the dying rays of the sun infused the earth with light.

Then a gray wash fell over the desert and the golden light was gone. The cold wind rattled the roof of the hospital. Brittle tumbleweeds rolled across the frozen waste. The fatigue of the journey settled over me and I fell into a troubled, restless sleep. In my dream I saw myself crawling across the desert like a crippled turtle. I made my way slowly towards the mountain, and when I was there I found the secret ponds and springs at the foot of the mountain. A ring of young girls danced around the water … they sang and danced like the group of first communion girls who had shared my holy communion so many years ago … when I was only a child. Then one of them, a dark-haired girl with flashing eyes, broke loose from the dance and ran towards me, calling my name as she ran. Tortuga! Oh, we're so glad you've come. Come and swim in the holy waters of the mountain! Come and hear Salomón tell his stories! I recognized Ismelda, dressed in flowing white and singing a song of joy … She took my hand and together we tumbled into the warm, bubbling waters. I'll drown! I cried, I'll drown! No, she cried, you will not drown in the mountain's waters. And holding me tight she taught me how to move my turtle flippers until I too could swim in the rushing water. Around me golden fish swam as effortlessly as birds float and glide in the air on a still day. See! she shouted with joy as she led me deeper and deeper into the mountain's heart, see the blood of the mountain. I looked and saw the rivers which fed the springs, one molten and red with burning lava and the other blue with cold water … and where the two rivers met the water hissed and became a golden liquid, apricot scented. This is where the waters meet, she whispered to me as we swam towards the shore, this is the place of power. Look! I looked and there on the bank sat a small, thin boy surrounded by cripples. He smiled and waved to us. This is Salomón, Ismelda said, and you have come to hear his story. Salomón knows the magic of the mountain … he is the mountain. Listen to his story. I listened as the frail, angelic boy opened his lips to speak. Then in the deep night and in the dream there was only silence as Salomón began his story …

Before I came here I was a hunter, but that was long ago … Still, it was in the pursuit of the hunt that I came face to face with my destiny, so I will tell my story and you will know
.

We called ourselves a tribe and we spent our time hunting and fishing along the river. For young boys that was a great adventure, so each morning I stole away from my father's home to meet my fellow hunters by the river. My father was a farmer who planted corn on the hills along the river. He was a good man. He kept the ritual of the seasons, marked the path of the sun and the moon across the sky, and he prayed each day that the order of things not be disturbed
.

He did his duty and tried to teach me the order in the weather and the seasons, but a wild urge in my blood drove me from him. I went to join the tribe along the river. At first I went willingly, the call of the hunt was exciting, the slaughter of the animals and the smell of blood drove us deeper and deeper into the dark river until I found that I was enslaved by the tribe and I forgot the fields of my father. We hunted birds with our crude weapons and battered to death stray raccoons and rabbits. Then we cooked the meat and filled the air with the smoke of roasting meat. The tribe was pleased with me and welcomed me as a hunter. They prepared for my initiation
.

I, Salomón, tell you this so that you may know the meaning of life and death. How well I know it now, how clear the events are of the day I killed the giant river turtle. I tell you this because since that day I have been a storyteller, forced by the order of my destiny to reveal my story. So I speak to you to tell you how the killing became a horror
.

The silence of the river was heavier than usual that day. The heat stuck to our sweating skin like sticky syrup and the insects sucked our blood. Our half-naked bodies moved like shadows in the brush. Those ahead and behind me whispered from time to time, complained that we were lost, suggested that we turn back. I said nothing, it was the day of my initiation, I could not speak. There had been a fight at camp the night before and the bad feelings still lingered. But we hunted anyway, there was nothing else to do. I was just beginning to realize that we were compelled to hunt in the dark shadows of the river. Some days the spirit for the hunt was not good, fellow hunters quarreled over small things, and still we had to start early at daybreak to begin the long day's journey which would not bring us out of the shadows until sunset
.

In the branches above us the bird cries were sharp and frightful, and more than once the leader lifted his arm and the line froze, ready for action. The humid air was tense. Somewhere to my left I heard the river murmur as it swept south, and for the first time, the dissatisfaction which had been building within me surfaced, and I cursed the oppressive darkness and wished I was free of it. I thought of my father walking in the sunlight of his green fields, and I wished I were with him. But I could not; I owed the tribe a debt. Today I would become a full member. I would kill the first animal we encountered
.

We moved farther than usual into unknown territory. We cursed as we hacked away at the thick underbrush; behind me I heard murmurs of dissension. Some wanted to turn back, others wanted to rest on the warm sandbars of the river, still others wanted to finish the argument which had started the night before. My father had given me an amulet to wear and he had instructed me on the hunt, and this made the leader jealous. So there had been those who argued that I could wear the amulet and those who said no. In the end the jealous leader tore it from my neck and said that I would have to face my initiation alone
.

I was thinking about how poorly prepared I was and how my father had tried to help when the leader raised his arm and sounded the alarm. A friend behind me whispered that if we were in luck there would be a deer drinking at the river. No one had ever killed a deer in the memory of our tribe. We held our breath and waited, until the leader motioned and I moved forward to see. There in the middle of the narrow path lay the biggest tortoise any of us had ever seen. It was a huge monster which had crawled out of the dark river to lay its eggs in the warm sand. I felt a shiver when I saw it, and when I breathed I smelled the spoor of the sea. The taste of copper drained in my mouth and settled in my queasy stomach
.

The giant turtle lifted its huge head and looked at us with dull, glintless eyes. The tribe drew back. Only I remained facing the monster from the water. Its slimy head dripped with bright green algae. It hissed a warning, asking me to move. It had come out of the water to lay its eggs, now it had to return to the river. Wet, leathery eggs fresh from the laying clung to its webbed feet, and as it moved forward it crushed them into the sand. Its grey shell was dry, dulled by the sun, encrusted with dead parasites and green growth; it needed the water
.

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