Authors: Andrew Vachss
Tags: #Collections & Anthologies, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #General
Jorge was a quiet, solid, honest man who lived alone in the village. He did not dance, or sing in the cantina, as did the other young men. He could not be persuaded to gamble or cajoled to drink. Like a block of stone, the villagers said of him; an ancient man, in his ways.
Jorge could fix anything. It was not so much the gift in his hands—it was his patience. He would worry at a stubborn piece of machinery for days at a time, until it yielded and worked once again. Some said Jorge could fix even the old rusty guns discarded by the government soldiers in the jungle. But only the rebels would want such weapons, and to aid them was an act of suicide.
Besides, Jorge had no politics, and the rebels had no money.
When Blanca’s spell fell upon Jorge, some of the villagers predicted her power would not prevail. No fire can consume stone. But, in their hearts, they knew this was not true, and they feared for the man they so respected.
But, although Blanca’s fire blazed as none had ever seen, still Jorge held her.
And when the two of them announced in church one Sunday
that they soon would wed, the villagers were forced to believe in the truth of their intertwined lives. Because fiery Blanca had never before promised herself to a man, and honest Jorge never lied.
Jorge bought a patch of ground and began work on the house he and Blanca would live in after their marriage.
Because Jorge spent his days fixing machinery, he could work on the house only in the evenings. But that was of no concern. The jungle days are long, and, many times, other villagers would come by to help.
Jorge was too proud a man to ask for their labor. But the villagers remembered well that none of them had ever had to ask Jorge when they were in need. It would be against honor to allow their friend to work alone on such a task.
The villagers not only helped Jorge build his little house, they also prayed for him to be blessed with many healthy children. Children as beautiful as Blanca, if that was possible. Children as strong and patient and honest as Jorge, if the gods willed it.
Months passed, and the season of rising blood came again. An old woman came to Jorge’s shop and told him that Blanca had been out late the night before, dancing with a lobo named Hector.
Jorge was not a man to listen to gossip. So he went to Blanca and asked her if what he had been told was true.
“Yes,” she told him, tartly, hands on her perfect hips. “I cannot stay home every night and do nothing—there will be time enough for that when I am old.”
Although all agreed that it was his right, Jorge did not beat her. He did not become angry, and he did not argue. Jorge said that life is a choice. He had made his choice, and Blanca must be allowed to make her own. “A man cannot own a woman,” he said. “He can possess her only if she wills it.”
A week passed. The village waited expectantly, but Jorge did not seek revenge against Hector. Finally, a group of the elders came to Jorge’s shop, to ask him why. “Blanca is not my property,” he told
them. “She is a woman, not a goat. And, Hector, he is only a fool, not a thief. A heart cannot be stolen.”
When the elders argued, Jorge patiently explained that Hector had not imposed himself on Blanca by force. And he did not deserve to die just because her flame had drawn him, too.
The next Sunday, Jorge went to church alone. He told the villagers that his wedding was not to be.
When Blanca heard what Jorge had done, she just laughed and shook her hips, running both hands through her thick midnight hair. “He will be back,” she told the disapproving villagers. “He knows he cannot find all this anyplace else.”
But months passed, and Jorge did not return to her. He still fixed machinery for the villagers. He still saved his money. He still worked on the little house—but all alone now. The villagers did not understand. But they did not question Jorge, and only watched in respect and in wonder.
All were watching the day that Blanca walked slowly through the village, all the way out to the little house. Some of the watchers whispered that Jorge had been right all along to have kept working on the house … because they all heard Blanca beg Jorge to forgive her. When Blanca told Jorge she had never lain with Hector, that her body was still pure, the whole village knew she spoke the truth. Blanca was a fickle, dancing butterfly, teasing all those who looked … but she was not a whore.
And Jorge did forgive her. But he would not accept her return to him. Blanca stalked off … but she returned the next evening. And the next. Still, no amount of pleading would make Jorge relent. He would not marry Blanca.
He would love her forever, Jorge said, but he could not marry the woman who had not been true to him.
He told Blanca she had not betrayed him with her body, but with her heart.
After that night, several of the girls in the village brought small
machines to Jorge’s shop for him to fix. At church, they fluttered around him like glorious tropical birds.
But no matter what was said to him, Jorge always replied the same. He said a man must bring his heart to a marriage, and his was gone forever, given to another. He would never marry.
Another season passed. One morning, when Jorge came to his shop, he found a note anchored to his door by a sharp knife. “By the time you read this, I will be dead,” the note said. He did not need the signature to know it was from Blanca.
Jorge worked all that day. That same evening, he walked over to the still-unfinished little house. He stepped through the doorway. The villagers heard the sound of a shot. They came running, and found Jorge inside. Dead, his broken heart shattered by a bullet, holding Blanca’s farewell note as gently as he once held her hand.
When Blanca came back two weeks later from visiting a cousin in another village, she learned that Jorge was dead.
The villagers expected Blanca to laugh at the result of her cruel joke. But never did she laugh again.
“I must apologize for my betrayal,” she told her mother.
“You cannot apologize to Jorge,” her mother said. “Jorge is gone. Go to church and pray for forgiveness.”
Blanca put on the dress she was to have worn to her wedding. She walked alone to the graveyard at the edge of the village.
That night she went to Jorge. To prove that he was her one true love, and to be with him forever.
Some say that this is when it began.
It was not long afterward that the forest began to be taken from the villagers.
After that, the famine came.
And, finally, the soldiers.
Between the Government soldiers and the guerillas, our people had no safe place. My father protested that the Government soldiers took too much for their taxes. So they said he was a communist, and beat him until he could no longer work. Then the guerillas came. And they said my father must have collaborated with the fascist oppressors; otherwise, they would have killed him. So the guerillas executed my father, as an example to the village of what happens when people do not support their liberators.
My mother watched as they shot my father. She nodded her head, to show she understood that this was justice.
For that, she lived long enough to give me my father’s folding knife and all our coins, and to tell me to run for the city.
I did not want to leave my mother, though she beat me and ordered me to go. Only when she told me if I loved her, I would go, did I run for the city.
When they put me in prison, I was not what they called me. I was no revolutionary—I was a thief. And I was a child, with a child’s faith and a child’s innocence.
Every night in my cell, I would pray. No one ever answered. Sometimes, the priest would come and I would ask him, “Why?”
It was a test, the priest would say.
“Padre, when do I find out if I passed that test?” I asked.
“When you die,” he told me.
In prison, I came very close to the answer. Many times. Does that mean I passed? Was I closer to God?
I do not know.
After seven years, all that was gone. If I were still a thief, I would try to steal back what they took from me.
But I am a thief no longer.
They whisper about me now, but the whispers are lies. What I do, it is for myself, for my own heart. I have no politics.
Now I am a savior of both the Government soldiers and the guerillas. As they pass through the jungle where I was born, I bring them closer to God, as the priest did me.
But I am not as cruel as the priest. I never make them wait for the answer.
Nothing is written. There are only whispers. The villagers know there was a time before the helicopters, though none could remember it. Some of the elders say that children have always been offered, even before the coming of the god who descends from the air like a bird.
In the time before the convoys, each year, the snake god took some of the children. The justice for this was simple and pure: a snake may be poison, but that kills only the man who ventures too close. But the rats, they bring the plague.
Snakes may take a life; rats can take a village. What people eat, rats eat. If the rats grow too plentiful and strong, they devour all, until the people starve. And then the rats eat their flesh.
The gods know all, so they knew about the rats. The gods sent the snakes to kill the rats. But the snakes required tribute, to ensure their return. The priests did the harvesting, then.
The word is passed quickly. It starts at the border where the convoy assembles. By the time the first Land Rovers veer off the paved roads and chug their way into the jungle, the villagers of La Corazón have known of their coming for many days.
Awaiting the convoy’s arrival, the villagers celebrate. The celebrations are quiet, held in private.
When the convoy arrives, the children must all be present. If a child’s mother cannot bring the child—perhaps she has gone with the rebels in the mountains, perhaps she is in prison, perhaps
dead—the villagers will act for her. At the edge of the jungle, the culture is that of the pack. All the children belong to the village, and all the village to them.
The hands of the convoy doctors are sure, inspiring confidence. The nurses are gentle-voiced. Each child is weighed and measured so that growth and development can be charted. Blood samples are drawn and examined under microscopes. Portable devices check for defects in bones and teeth and organs.
If any of the children are broken, the medical team fixes them. Some of the repairs are wizardry—a sickly child gains weight and thrives, a harelip vanishes, a painful limp becomes a joyous lope.
The convoy never takes any of the children they repair. That would be against justice. And never is more than one child taken from one mother.
The convoy harvests only nine of the children each time, three for each of the seasons.
Three is a holy number. Even the priests say that is so.
Each mother whose child is taken receives a large sum of money. It is customary for the mother to divide the money in half—one half is hers to keep, the other belongs to the village fund.
The villagers use the fund to buy supplies for the year. The land close to the border is not fertile, but there is nowhere else to farm. The rebels control the lower mountain steppes and the untilled forest.
Deep in the forest, children of the rebels are healed by shamans. But the Government has proclaimed that all those who aid the rebels are themselves enemies of the State, and no shaman will come to the border villages.
The Government soldiers come and take—they call it tax-collecting. The rebels come and take too—they call it contributing to the struggle for liberation. Without the money from the harvest, there would be nothing left.
It is whispered that, if the convoy comes and harvests nothing, it will never return. Nobody in the village knows if this is true, but all are frightened by the possibility.
Without the convoy, the village would die. So the priests have blessed the harvests. For some of the villagers, this is a source of great confusion. And some sadness.