Read Tortuga Online

Authors: Rudolfo Anaya

Tortuga (9 page)

Yes, Tortuga, it was a rare thing … a love returning when I thought all love had died. Its round, butterfly eyes caressed me with their love … a love it had brought from the flowers which grew along the slopes of the mountain and in the desert. It fanned its wings and spread the rich colors throughout the room, preened itself as butterflies will do, cleaning the gold pollen from its feet. Then it laid its kiss softly … I tasted the sweetness of its touch and felt a tickle in my throat as the tiny eggs and the pollen entered my throat. For the first time since the paralysis another form of life had come to touch me … as you have been touched by Filomón and Ismelda … and as you will be touched by the mountain and all the forms of life that live at its feet. I cried with joy as the tiny eggs burrowed into my blood and wrapped themselves in soft, chrysalis shells to sleep. I wanted to shout for the first time that I had felt the secret of all life … Instead I lay very quietly … watched the giant butterfly rise and disappear out the window … watched it until it became one with the desert and the mountain. I slept … and felt the death all flowers feel when pollinated. But inside I felt a new life growing, like the flower which wilts is born again in its own fruit, I felt the little chrysalises ripening, gnawing through their shells and rising to my throat to seek their freedom. These new winged beauties now burst from my mouth each time I speak. They fly from my soul to carry the words of love I learned that day. Each carries a new story, but all the stories are bound to the same theme … life is sacred, yes, even in the middle of this wasteland and in the darkness of our wards, life is sacred …

They are my children, Tortuga
…
they are the cries and whispers of my soul. They say the sun sanctifies all life, and it is his path of light that we should walk
.

Yes, we are the shriveled flowers of an unseen, unfelt kiss of love … we do not yet know the full wonder of the creation. We look at our limbs and see them withered as flower petals. The fresh beauty of the cosmic kiss has faded in this life … and we are left on dry branches, hanging on to the frail tree of life which is daily destroyed to fill the needs of man …

And you ask why, Tortuga. Why were we transformed from blooming flower to withered petals? I will tell you … it is because we guard the new fruit of that kiss. We guard the new love which needs no explanation. We must search for the path of light and when we find it we must walk on it. And when the time is ripe the crippled, fragile shells will burst open and fly like the golden butterflies of summer … They will fly out across the desert to pollinate new flowers with love and beauty …

The next day Dr. Steel found out what the Nurse had done and he ordered her to move me back to the first ward, in fact I wound up in Mike's room with him and Sadsack and Jerry. Sometime later somebody asked about Salomón's story.

“Is that really what he said?” they asked.

I could only answer, “Yes, something like that—”

6

The sun is our father

I walk in his path

I walk in beauty …

He is the fiery rider

Who mounts the turtle

Day by day …

I opened my eyes to the words of the whispered song. The room was still and cold in the pre-dawn light. Mike and Sadsack were still asleep, snoring mounds in the eerie pearl light. The outline of a shadow stood at the window … Jerry, singing to the rising sun. When the first rays peeked over Tortuga and touched the clouds with fire, he sprinkled a yellow powder towards the mountain, then he cupped his hands as if to gather in the first strings of light to drink.

It was his prayer to the sun which had awakened me, a prayer he sang every day at sunrise. I closed my eyes and thought about this ceremony to the sun. I knew that as the winter days got shorter and shorter and the sun sank farther to the south the tempo and urgency of Jerry's song seemed to increase. His faith was woven into the journey of the sun, he watched it travel towards the lowest point in the horizon, and he waited for the solstice. On that day, if his songs were full of goodness, the sun would return. But would it return for us? It seemed we had lost faith in everything, even the sun itself had become the black sun of the wasteland. We saw only the frozen desert, and in it our faith had shriveled. Jerry kept something alive of his faith, something neither the walls of the hospital nor the despair of the barren desert could erase.

So each morning I listened carefully to his chant, tried to understand what he was saying and how it related to Salomón's admonition to walk in the path of the sun. I did my morning exercises while I listened, bending each arm at the elbow to build the muscles, rising them to my face to touch with trembling fingers my nose and mouth and forehead. I grunted and pushed every available bit of energy I could find into my legs. First I wiggled my toes, rotated my feet at my ankles, then I tried to bend the knees. So the morning chant was good for both of us. It filled us with a purpose. When Jerry was done he turned and looked at me, knew I had been exercising, and an unspoken communication passed between us, hung in the pale, cold air for a moment, then he slipped into his bed and retreated into his solitude. I lay trembling and sweating after my exertion, watching the sun burn the frost away from the hill and lift the cold haze in the valley. It filled our room with light.

Jerry never spoke to anyone, not even Mike's kidding could draw him out, still we had formed a silent friendship, one that needed no words. Mike had told me that Jerry belonged to a tribe of Navajos who lived beyond the Gila Mountains, the strange and distant serpentine range which lay to the west. I often wondered how many times he thought of home in those early hours of the morning before the hospital awakened. For me it was always the time for remembering home, and especially my mother because I knew my accident had been a heavy burden for her to bear. I knew the hardships the struggle of the people presented, I knew the poverty of the times, and so I knew there would be no visits from home. And there was nothing they could do if they came … like Jerry, I needed the silence, I needed to work my way out alone.

Still, Jerry had the sun, a faith, and an abiding assurance that his grandfather would come and take him away from the hospital. Yes, even here he kept his faith. Everybody knew it was he who had broken into the kitchen pantry and stolen a bag of cornmeal, the welfare government issue which they fed us, and Mike had kidded Jerry. “Hey,” he had said, “I guess that old grandfather sun of yours is getting fed on government staples every morning, just like the rest of the poor people.”

Jerry had looked down to hide his smile.

“How come Jerry gets up so friggin' early?” Sadsack had asked.

“Why don't you get up with him and find out,” Mike had answered, “Tortuga does—”

“Ah balls!” Sadsack muttered, “I'm not going to get up that early just to see the sun rise!”

“He gets up early to sing to the sun,” Ronco said.

“What's he sing?” Sadsack asked.

“Tell 'em the story about the old Indian, Mike.”

Mike sat on his bed and said, “Well, in the village where Jerry comes from there's a very wise, old Indian whose job is to get up every morning before the sun rises. He saddles his horse and rides to the top of the highest hill, and when he gets there he faces the east and sings a song for the sun to rise. You see if it wasn't for that song the sun wouldn't rise and everything would freeze to death—”

“Well, whaz he sing?” Sadsack repeated impatiently.

Mike sat stiffly and beat the top of his night table to imitate a drum. In a deep voice and with great solemnity he sang the song of the old Indian.

“Grandfather, grandfather sun

Oh hear me grandfather

Listen to my prayers

Oh great giver of life

A song I am sending to you

A song I am sending to you

GET UP YOU OLD SON OF A BITCH!”

We all laughed, and even Jerry cracked a smile.

Jerry was out herding sheep, Mike had told me later, and his grandfather was away at a blessing way ceremony, and that's when the Indian Health people grabbed Jerry and dumped him here. They never told anyone, they just picked him up like you would a stray dog and they brought him here. He didn't even come with Filomón, so he's got no way of getting back. Jerry's only hope is that his grandfather is tracking him down, at least that's what he believes, but damn Tortuga, how's the old man ever going to find him? They brought him here in a jeep, there are no tracks to follow. How in the hell is the old man ever going to find this godforsaken place?

I didn't know how Jerry's grandfather would find him, but I thought about it as I watched Jerry get back into his bed and withdraw into his silence. So he was waiting for his grandfather, always checking the window late at night when he thought we were all asleep. Maybe there was some hope in that, at least more than in my dead grandfather who haunted me only in my dreams.

Somewhere down the ward someone dropped a urinal and it clanged like a bell in the cold silence. Someone coughed and cleared his throat, a toilet flushed. The ward was awakening. Across the room Mike was still snoring, but he could be up in an instant. He slept with his levis on because he was sensitive about his burned, scarred legs.

He had been at a hospital where they had a special burn treatment unit for a few years, then he had been transferred here to see if his legs, which had been burned nearly to the bone, could be outfitted with leg braces so he could walk.

We were a big family, and poor, he had said, lived in a small, two room shack. We had an old kerosene heater to heat the house. Every morning I had to run up the road to the gas station and buy half a gallon of kerosene, come back and light the heater so the house would be warm when my father got up. He was a mean sonofabitch, ran us like slaves. Each morning my mother got me up before dawn and I'd dress quietly and run out in the goddamn cold. I didn't mind it … it kept peace in the family, at least in the morning. And I got to see everything while it was still, before people were up. I'd run across a big field where they kept cows … I remember the way the frozen grass crunched beneath my feet, felt the cold air fill my lungs, saw the cows standing together, looking sad with their teats full of milk before milking … To make a long story short, one morning there was a new attendant at the station, just opening up, sleepy as me … I didn't watch while he filled the can … he filled it with gas. I went home and filled the heater as usual, then when I lit the match the thing blew like a bomb. I closed my eyes, but everything was so bright I could see right through my eyelids. The force of the explosion knocked me through the window … I must have passed out for a few moments. When I opened my eyes I looked down and saw my legs burning, sizzling the way pig fat sizzles when they're making chicharrones. My old man slept in a back room, so he got out through a window without a scratch on him, but my mother and sisters … He paused, breathed deep and continued. They didn't have a chance. I could hear them screaming inside as the house went up in flames. I tried to get to them … my legs still burning away, but I couldn't … Now I can still hear them screaming as they burned. At first I blamed myself, then I blamed the sleepy attendant who filled the can with gas … I blamed my father, then I blamed God. I didn't know why such a horrible thing had to happen. I couldn't explain it. I kept looking for a reason. All that first year while I lay soaking in my blood and juices and the doctors kept trying to take enough pieces of flesh from the rest of my body to patch up the burns, and they kept falling off, full of gangrene … well, they pulled it off, kept me alive, left me with a pair of the ugliest most burned skinny legs you ever saw. There's no place to fit the braces, a little meat around the knees and the feet … nothing else. I can stand on them a little, but I need the braces. So Steel's working on it. It's been a long wait. The nightmares are gone now … once in a long time they return and I wake up screaming at night, feeling I'm on fire, hearing the screams … I see the scene before my eyes again, as it happened then … so long ago. You can't forget the past … I found out you can't block something like that out. It stays with you forever. What I finally learned to do is to quit looking for a reason or an answer as to why it happened. When I realized that things just happen, that there's no reason, that there's no big daddy up in the sky watching whether you burn or not … much less caring, then it helped. Things just happen. They just are. Finding a cause doesn't change what has happened. They're working on curing polio, Dr. Steel told me, and he believes they're going to do it. In the meantime the kid that has polio right now has to live with it. He has to live with it and say to himself that's just the way it is. The rich get richer and the poor go on suffering … How do you change that, huh?

I didn't know. Somewhere down the hall Franco sang.

And I don't know, how long

I can go onnn

Cause it keeps right on a'hurtin'

Every hour you're away

Every moment of the day …

I didn't know. I looked around the room and thought how each one of us had wound up at the hospital, and unlike Mike I was still asking why?

Opposite Jerry's bed, Sadsack mumbled in his sleep. He yawned and chewed at the bits of food stuck between his teeth. His long, bony arms flopped up awkwardly as he tried to scratch away the sun shining on his puffy eyes. “Aow, goddamn,” he groaned and cursed. His long, limp legs hung over the side of the bed and he cursed because his feet were cold. He blinked his eyes open, scratched his balls and muttered, “Aw shit, another day, another dollar—”

Mike sat up, rubbed his eyes and looked around. “Complaining already, Sad?”

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