Justin and the campesino, Santos, spent the morning hiking deep into a ravine, carefully picking their way down narrow goat paths and occasionally chopping through vines and thickets. Now they were at the bottom of the ravine and sitting on a boulder that sloped into a stream snaking around gray rocks and lush vegetation. Santos was tired, a man who had lived well past fifty, pushing sixty maybe; it was difficult to tell. He had been evasive about his age, gesturing with his callused hand and saying, “Viejo. Old.” The younger man Justin had stated boldly without shame that he was twenty-seven.
Justin arrived in Mexico full of excitement and romantic misconception, as if the air itself would whisper the dreams of Cortes entering Tenochtitlan, a city he pronounced differently each time, but never without effort. After tolerating the fakery of Puerto Vallarta tourist traps, he headed inland wanting to feel the cool earth of the past while digging for real artifacts.
On the bus, while staring at the dangling crucifixes and mother Mary’s swaying with each harrowing curve, he thought about Cathy and her initial desire to join him, remembering the dim-lit restaurant where she used the word “relationship” and touched her ring-finger. Later, she gave him a different finger.
Justin knew enough of the language to communicate with gestures and phrases. Santos knew some English.
“Que creo?” Justin asked, sitting on the boulder, next to Santos. “What do you think our chances are today?”
“No se,” Santos responded. “Up the hill. It is good.”
“Let’s go then.” Justin stood. “I’d like to be back before dark this time.”
“Agua?” Santos held up a glass jar that he had just dipped into the stream.
Justin stared at the jar, the tan-colored water with dirt floating in it. He remembered the previous week, when severe intestinal cramps woke him in the middle of the night, and he had to hold his buttocks together while crossing the narrow dirt road to the toilet, mounted in plain view of the few homes perched along the steep lake shore. He barely had his pants down when he had to pivot on his heels and thrust his face to the toilet, then whirl around to accommodate the other side, dancing in this way for several pirouettes before finally giving up and letting the microbes scour out his intestines, leaving nothing but the continued cramping.
Now he looked at the agua. “No gracias,” he said, pulling out a Coca-Cola, drinking the flat, warm liquid, its syrup coating his stomach, still bloated. He watched Santos shrug his shoulders, gulp the dirty water, then smile.
They hiked up the hill and followed another dirt road. Justin had no way of knowing if this were the same road that they’d started on that morning. It was rugged country with many narrow gorges carved into the dry earth. They often ended up somewhere he didn’t expect. Santos moved steadily in his white loose-fitting clothing while Justin sweat in his army surplus pants and long-sleeve shirt.
Santos abruptly headed across a cornfield, his white clothes bright in the sunlight, gliding through the crops like a ghost, machete sheathed and tied loosely around his waist.
Justin followed, stumbling, the dry corn stalks cracking. “Why don’t we use the machetes?” he asked.
Santos stopped, shrugged, “Porque? Why?” Then he offered a cigarette, a “Fiesta.” Justin inhaled the pungent smoke. He had no idea where they were headed because he could not understand half of what Santos said, but he remembered something about a village and making a “connection.”
As they emerged from the cornfield, he saw several women kneeling on flat rocks, kneading clothes in the surging stream, which suddenly churned with soap bubbles. Children ran about playing, poking at the bubbles with sticks, and naked toddlers squatted by the river and threw pebbles. Infants lay nearby on the ground, wrapped in swaddling. Justin felt overwhelmed by the number of children. Most of the women had smooth native skin, but they were all fat, and when they looked up at him showed breasts that pulled toward the soapy water. Justin sensed a bit of sarcasm in their glances, as if saying to him, you know nothing, gringo. Cathy had said something similar to him once, playfully, but perhaps true. Then a thin, flat-chested teenager, with deep dark eyes and movie-star looks, began strutting behind the women like a chicken. He wondered if the teenager had a world view, or any understanding of her heritage. Did she learn things by touching the cool earth? Justin thought about Cathy curled on her couch, wearing her big blue sweater, reading about Mexico. She should be here, seeing this, with him.
Justin followed Santos out of the parched cornfield, across the river and onto the village road which was almost completely covered with flattened red and white beer cans, as if a form of pavement. The road led uphill to a cluster of clay and straw homes piled together and connected by alleys and stone walls. Gaunt chickens pecked at the beer cans, feathers missing in patches, as if they’d had surgery. No wonder their beaks are misshapen, Justin thought.
Four campesinos were leaning against a wall with a window where Coke and chewing gum were sold. One of the men lifted his hand as if too exhausted to say anything. Santos muttered, sueno, and they moved on. Justin would have liked a fresh Coke, but it was now past noon and they hadn’t even come to the spot where they were supposed to dig.
Up a hill, a short walk to the other side of the pueblo, they came to a very small circular fenced-in area where the dirt had the look of many hooves trampling about in mud, only now it was dry and hard as rock. A man was sitting on this hard ground with his legs sticking straight out while leaning against a post. He balanced a cup of coffee on his leg with one finger hooked through the handle. The cup had flies so thick that you could not see the rim. The man lifted the cup to his lips, and the files buzzed into the air. Then he slurped the cold coffee and brought the cup down, the flies returning to the rim.
Justin looked at Santos. “Quien es? Who is this?”
“Pietro,” Santos said. “Drunk.”
“Was he supposed to lead us to the grave site?” he asked, but Santos only shrugged, so Justin used the key word. “Artifacts? Este persona?”
“Si, pero este es drunk?”
“What now? Que ahora?”
Santos kicked the man’s foot and rattled off Spanish, too fast for Justin to understand. The man responded so slowly and sluggishly that he couldn’t understand that either.
“We go by ourselves,” Santos said and opened the gate into the fenced in area. They walked across the hard uneven ground to the shed and found some rusty shovels.
They didn’t hike much further, just a little beyond the outskirts of the town. Justin was starting to feel weak carrying the shovels, maybe a return of the microbes, or dehydration. They sat near a tree, another small parched cornfield along the belly of a ridge; it seemed an unlikely spot for a burial. Convenient though, so close to a shade tree. Not directly beneath it, but close enough. Santos offered him another “Fiesta” and he took it, inhaled, and felt his stomach wrench. But after they started digging and broke through the hard surface and found loose earth, cool and moist, almost silky, it excited Justin and he forgot about his stomach and the late hour. The shovel knifed in easily, and he waited for it to strike something important.
Santos was unaffected. They had dug like this many times before and by now he was used to the gringo’s excitement at meaningless labor, and his disappointment. Something else was bothering the gringo. But it didn’t matter. Santos liked him and his youth, his strength. The gringo tried hard to understand the language, even though he was awful at it, as bad as Santos was at English. It had given them a mutual disability. They had that in common. Also, the gringo was spending money. That was important. Even so, he wanted this gringo to get want he wanted. He hoped that this time they would uncover something. He had hoped that in the previous days but after the suffering with the sickness and the good-natured way the gringo had taken the suffering, he wanted him to find something. Most of these graves had been pilfered by the locals, and this one now seemed to have also been already dug. The drunk, Pietro, had told him as much; still, they might excavate a chamber that had not been found previously. It was known to have happened, these graves often had compartments, houses for the dead, with many living rooms for their spirits.
They worked well into the evening uncovering only broken pieces about the size of quarters. The sun turned the ridge red, and the air was cooling rapidly. Justin was again disappointed, and bothered by Cathy’s absence, and he considered blaming her for his bad luck. She would have been great at this; she knew the language; she was smart.
“Amigo,” Santos said, “It is late, we must go.”
“Yes, you’re right.” Justin stood leaning on the shovel, in the deep hole, shadows sharp and black so that he couldn’t see his feet, dirt falling in from the edge of the grave, and he climbed out quickly.
As they neared the village, they were approached by two men, one very skinny, wearing a blue shirt and a cowboy hat; he had a gun tucked into his belt. The gun was big and Justin wondered whether or not the man ever worried about shooting off his manhood. The other carried a machete unsheathed and held loosely at his side. They both eyed him suspiciously and the one with the gun smiled. He had a silver tooth. Rapid-fire talk ricocheted back and forth between Santos and the two men, only this time Justin recognized “artifacts” in the conversation at which point the men looked at him again. They seemed satisfied, and turned to go, but suddenly the man with the gun stopped and pulled out his weapon, an odd looking thing with a very long but slender barrel, and shiny, as if the man spent lots of time polishing it. Justin knew very little about guns except that they could kill and that this one was pointed at his chest. He felt a thin line of shit running down his leg. Fuck them, he thought, clenching his teeth, trying to appear relaxed. The man with the gun smiled and tucked it back into his belt, and they left, their laughter rolling down the ravine as the shadows from the ridge enveloped them.
Justin walked uneasily back to the can-covered streets. When Santos stopped at the window where they sold Coke and gum, now lit by a single light bulb, Justin kept going and went to the stream. In the diminishing light, he took off his pants and sat in the river, its cold waters chilling him. His stomach felt bloated again, swelling out unnaturally from his youthfully trim body. He dragged his trousers across the ground, drying and “cleaning” them in the dust. When he put them back on, he could feel dirt stick to his wet skin. Across the river, the thin teenage girl watched.
“Amigo, donde esta? Where are you?” Santos was standing in the dark, the stream now lit by moonlight.
“Here. Aqui.” Justin stepped across on the stones. An evening breeze had settled and now the cool night air felt refreshing.
“You after la nina?” Santos asked, nodding toward the teenager, her moonlit form suggesting that she might soon be a woman.
“What? Oh no, not at all.”
“Si, pero muy joven. Very young.”
Santos laughed. “Yes, amigo, pero you need un mujer, a woman, no?”
“Tu queires la nina? You want the little girl?”
Santos laughed again. “No, no. Yo tengo un muy bonita esposa. Beautiful wife.”
Justin thought about Santos’ wife, a big round woman who had borne him five sons and three beautiful daughters, a woman who cooked their food meticulously over a fire, knowing exactly when to place another twig or stick, or to take one out if she needed to lower the heat. Yes, Santos had a beautiful wife, in a place where darkness filled the gorges and the narrow dirt road glowed in moonlight. Far away, he thought, from his Cathy.
Just then, the two men they had met earlier appeared on the road. Fuck them, Justin muttered, but also felt relieved with the diversion. Santos seemed unperturbed and, in the moonlight, it was difficult to tell exactly what was going on. The conversation in rapid Spanish dissipated into the cold air as quickly as it was spoken.
Justin wanted to kill the man with the gun, a curious urge for him, and a little unnerving. But Santos placed his hand on Justin’s shoulder and said, “Esta bien, amigo.”
“Que es esta bien?”
“Mira. Mira. Look.”
But he couldn’t see much. Only the forms of men in moonlight, one holding his hand on the butt end of the gun, and the other holding something in a burlap sack. From the size of it, Justin thought, someone’s head. The silver-toothed smile came again, and the rapid language came again also. Santos and the man with the gun appeared to be haggling over the price of the head in the sack. Then they settled on it and Santos asked Justin for 100 pesos.
“Ciento pesos. Esta bien.”
Justin thought about it and touched his money belt, which he wore under his shirt. It had bulged out significantly at the beginning of his trip but now was thin and pressed tight around his bloated stomach. “Que es en la bolsa?” he asked. “What’s in the bag?”
They set the bag on the ground. The man with the gun pushed the other aside, and pulled the object out.
“Mira,” Santos said, full of pleasure, thinking, this surely will send the gringo home happy, for at least he knows how to live, how to suffer a little bit and how to endure. Perhaps he will someday make a good gringo papa and have many children.
On the dirt road, in the moonlight, there was an artifact. Needing to see it to understand, Justin got on his knees and leaned close to it. The three Mexicans knelt also. It was a clay figurine molded into a kneeling position similar to the men now paying homage to it, clearly a pregnant woman ready to give birth. A crudely made figurine, but if authentic, thousands of years old. Justin picked it up, held it, and knew in fact that it could easily be fake. If so, he thought, these campesinos knew how to put on a good show, the pleasure and excitement they seemed to gain while doting over it. Like anybody, anywhere, they were capable of being liars and cheats. Even so, 100 pesos wasn’t that much money to him, a lot to them, so he paid, then placed the fertility artifact back in the burlap sack, and gently lifted her over his shoulder.
Santos smiled and his happy mood seemed to fill the cool night air. And for a few moments Justin also felt happy, having decided that the artifact was real enough. Then, as if by design, a lone flatbed truck appeared, clattering to a stop, and they climbed aboard. As the truck rose into the hills, bouncing over ruts and teetering toward dark gorges, Justin held onto broken floorboards and cradled his artifact.
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