Her husband wondered where she had gone. Bernadim could see his wife’s car clearly from the air. There didn’t appear to be anything wrong. He took a quick look as he passed over, spotting his wife’s Jag, a beautiful new sedan which she preferred to drive herself, often leaving her driver when she was certain to find parking. He hadn’t noticed before the beauty of the drive’s flowering canopy. Years ago, on a trip to Table Mountain and Cape Town, his grandfather had been inspired by the wide use of the jacaranda and, upon his return, had dozens of the flowering trees planted along the road leading to the family house. When in full bloom, which happened more or less all at once, the full-grown trees created what looked to be clouds of lavender and violet descended from the heavens, ready to carry away all those anxious to meet God.
Bernadim called for his wife as he entered the house. Everything seemed eerily quiet. There was not so much as a single light on, not even in the drawing-room, where he found his wife’s handbag and hat. He headed upstairs. He called out more than once. Nothing. He went to their bedroom. He went so far as to check the bath but found the room empty and looking very much as he had left it that morning before seven. “Florabel!”
He was now getting anxious. He was moving quickly. Not running, not yet frantic. Opening and closing closet doors. He returned now to the corridor and began checking the bedrooms, one by one. Finally, his search took him to Enrique’s room, but he knew, of course, that the boy was away with the family’s lawyers, and not likely to return until his court dates were set.
He flung the door open and called out again, only no sooner had the words escaped than he saw her and his son together, slumped over and dead. They were nude. Her body, it was seated, her head down and to its side. He couldn’t see her face. She was sitting sprawled out, completely naked, with her legs spread out and her arms hanging limply to the side. She was dead. Below her right hand on the floor lay a small revolver, hers, a gift he had given her several years earlier. A small gun people called a Widower. He’d forgotten all about it. Ladies carried them in their purses.
His son was on the floor, on his knees. He lay slumped forward with his head on his mother’s belly. Like his mother, the boy was nude. A pair of bronze lace panties lay on the floor. His father got a good look at his back. He looked long enough to see that his son had taken on a hideous tattoo of what appeared to be a lighthouse. His face disappeared into her flesh, but there was blood already caking on his shoulder and arm. She must have shot him and then herself. He looked hard and then looked away. He didn’t want to think too much about what they had been doing. He decided he didn’t know. Of course, his mind ran back to the time they were together in Lisbon when the boy was in school, but he had always thought well of those times and dared not alter his memories.
He looked once more at her. He even caught sight of the red stone that sat precariously at the side of her middle nipple. He had always found it enticing. Suddenly, he felt ashamed of himself, of his family, of his life, his wife, his own offspring, of everything. At the side of her head, he noted a terrible wound. Her hair was matted with blood. Her jaw hung low. He gasped and pulled himself back out of the room.
Bernadine had no intention of allowing anyone else to see them and didn’t want anyone else in the house. He hated the thought of there being anonymous speculation. The vile press would have a heyday. He would never learn what happened. He would never know why his son had been calling his friend in Saudi Arabia or why he had placed so many calls to Riyadh from prison. He had no reason to believe his son had been trying so hard to maintain contact with his old friend. He thought he remembered having heard the prince had recently married.
He swung into action. Moving quickly, he went into the garage and carried a large 5- gallon portable gas tank to the rear and filled it from the underground tank built beneath the drive. His father had had a large tank installed during the war due to petrol shortages and uncertain deliveries and lengthy shortages. He himself had the tanks filled often and rarely took gas from the public stations. He ran now back to the house and up the back stairs to the corridor leading to his son’s bedroom. He turned the tank upside down, allowing the liquid to soak the Persian rug in the middle of the room. As soon as it was empty, he picked up the tank and returned to the garage for a refill.
This time he carried the tank to his office and dumped its contents, allowing the fuel to flow out on to the beautiful rug beneath his mahogany desk. He wept at the sight of the oil painting on the wall, a painting Florabel as a girl had brought with her from her father’s polo tour to Tennessee and California. Bernadim heard all about it even before he and she were married.
She had loved to regale acquaintances with stories of her adventures in America.
Years later, while on a trip to New York, Florabel found another painting by the same artist. The painting depicted a black girl sitting on an old tire swing while, in the distance, stood a plain shack, not unlike the ones her father had passed on their frequent trips from their stables outside Memphis to the polo fields in Wilson, Arkansas a few hours away. A sharecropper’s shack it no doubt was, in the painting, a simple thing, utterly without features, but Mr. Cloar had a way of making the scene of the girl on the swing look like she was sitting in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. The light was glorious.
Florabel had wanted to buy it but the artist’s prices had already climbed to over $100,000. Bernadim did not approve. Their house was fully furnished. “One is enough.” He remembered speaking harshly, gruffly. This had been a mistake. One too many mistakes. She had said once that he sounded like her father. “All you say is ‘no.’” Florabel rarely brought things into the house. She had wanted so little. Now, Bernadim looked at that painting and realized how much his poor wife had resembled that little girl standing all alone in a field. It could just as well have been in Argentina. He had never noticed how unhappy the girl was. He hadn’t acknowledged his wife’s misery.
It killed Bernadim to destroy his wife’s painting. It horrified him to see something she loved go up in flames. At the same time, he felt totally helpless. He wasn’t making his own decisions. He wanted it all to disappear. He had to destroy everything.
This last time, he walked as briskly as possible, refilled the tank, and headed this time for the dining room where he released his noxious load beneath the stunning hand-carved table around which his family had eaten for over a century. It killed him to consider what he had to do. As soon as the tank was empty, he set it aside. From his pocket, he took his gold Dunhill lighter and set the damp floor and soaked rug alight. Flames erupted and he left the room. Now, he headed to Enrique’s room. He thought for a fleeting second about moving their bodies but knew instantly that he would not touch them. He tossed the lighter into the room, watched as the rug caught fire, and immediately closed the door.
He stood a moment and then with a grand shove, forced the great linen cabinet to slide across the floor and only stopped when it fully blocked the bedroom door. He didn’t want anyone else going inside and seeing his wife and child like that. His mind was racing. He was in a rage but could not and would not allow himself to fall apart. He could not permit things to get out of hand. He ran downstairs, reentered his office, and used his fireplace matches to get things going. Once he was certain the fires were going strong, he left the house. Without looking back, he headed for the edge of the garden and stepped into the jungle, which for him, even at this age, seemed strangely magical with its many colorful birds, exotic plants and, although no longer present, the native peoples who lived within.
He threw down the palm frond he’d picked off the lawn, his father’s old habit, as he crossed the manicured yard his mother had designed and treasured. How many fronds had there been, thousands? All gathered up and burned. The palms were at once majestic and useless, like weeds, expensive to maintain, needing haircuts like little boys and girls. It cost hundreds to have one removed.
There was no path. He was making his way now to the river. As he picked his way through the jungle, climbing over exposed roots, Bernadim had become so overwrought that he failed to pick up the usual sounds he once found so very entrancing and utterly disarming. The monkeys, the black oropendolas with their unique throaty cries, and the occasional stork. When he was a boy, there were still giant macaw. He removed his jacket and his shirt. He hung them on a branch and continued moving. He removed his belt and flung it off to the side. Then he stopped. He emptied his pockets, took out his wallet, and finally removed his shoes. He set them aside and filled them with his things. He removed the watch, an old Panerai given to him by Florabel on their tenth. He tucked it into the toe of his right shoe. He removed his socks and stuffed them into his shoes. At last, he removed his slacks and hung them neatly over a low-slung vine. He stood in his boxers and took a good look around.
Suddenly, he thought of the death of his father. It all came back. His mother, he thought of, standing outside the bedroom door, steps from where his father lay dying, begging to be allowed in. All she wanted was to comfort him in his final…pain. He was in agony but couldn’t bring himself to admit it. He refused to be seen. She asked if there was anything he wanted, anything at all she could do. He said he wanted to be left alone. Now he understood his father. Only now. He, too, wanted to be treated like a poisonous frog. Stay away! Run! The most poisonous thing in the world. That tiny frog whose toxic skin was used to wet the arrow tips and blow darts of the Waorani people to kill tropical possum. He envied its glistening flesh, bright red and green, with secretions to ward off all its enemies. He had always wanted to be feared. He now hoped to go alone; he had always dreamed of dying under a rock in the jungle.
Bernadim was getting close. He would be at the water’s edge soon. The ground was soggy. He made note of the great cashew pods on a tree branch hanging low beneath the fronds of giant fern, but what impressed him was the enormous cluster of rumberries. As a child, he used to be sent by cook on rumberry scouting missions. He had never been allowed so close to the river, but had he found such a clump of the delicious fruit when he was ten, he would undoubtedly have been crowned and handed a chocolate cookie. Cook was famous for the remarkable ice creams she made with these small red berries. His job was to report his findings and then cook would send the gardeners out to harvest the valuable camu camu fruits that somehow never managed to do well in the commercial markets. Perhaps it is because the modern palate favors sweet over sour. These days nobody knew how to make anything like the desserts served during Bernadim’s enchanted childhood.
He now heard a shriek. It was the first sound he had heard. Before he had blocked out all sounds. He’d heard nothing up to that very moment. It was as if he had been deaf and suddenly regained his hearing. He loved to spot wild birds, but the colorful toucans were becoming harder and harder to find. He had once asked his man, the head gardener, where the toucan had gone. He old man replied, “Some toucans prefer Venezuela, boss.” Could you blame them? Suddenly, he thought he might have heard a guan in the brush; it was that ugly bird his mother always said resembled a fierce turkey. “There are birds that run toward you and those that run away. It’s the same with people.” He stood still hoping to hear it again.
He had reached the river. One thing for sure, Bernadim was under no illusion that great metaphysical questions and their answers lay below the tranquil surface of the mighty river that bordered his family homestead. Rather, he accepted from a young age that what lurked beneath was a nearly infinite number of blood-thirsty critters beginning with the gigantic anaconda and continuing still with the deadly leptospirosis bacteria. He knew of horses being eaten alive. This in turn brought him to more innocent times, when Enrique, like other little boys, wanted to marry his mother and, if everything else went his way, hoped to join the Municipal Guards. Enrique liked uniforms and what he probably thought were toy guns.
The water was black along this stretch, black and shimmering like oil. He would have preferred to go out in a small boat, but he hadn’t wanted to be seen. He removed his shorts and placed them on his head. He turned them round and round, trying to find the best fit. He stood quite naked now on the bank. In the sun’s reflection, Bernadim caught sight of a tall man standing in the river. The water was rushing by but he remained standing perfectly still. He bore a remarkable resemblance to Dr. Stolz from his youth. “Dr. Stolz! I’m here.” Bernadim waved at him frantically but he disappeared. There were others now in the water, dressed in white. Had he walked in on a baptism? The men appeared to be dry. He waved but nobody waved back.
Suddenly, he felt the urge and peed into the water. He liked the sound of the splash and the light as it glistened off his stream. At first, he held himself but then let go, perhaps feeling that it no longer mattered where his urine ran. He planned to swim out into mid-stream. He figured on being found eventually but didn’t want to be unrecognizable. He thought his shorts might provide some protection against the piranha which he hoped would make quick work of it.
He would eventually be found and identified. None would know what to make of what had occurred. There would be wild speculation. Most would guess that he couldn’t live without money. Then, rumors would start. Bernadim was known to have spent a small fortune to keep his son safe from harm. He’d bribed the warden. His son, however, had made himself sexually available. He’d sought out the men’s attention. On this both inmates and guards would attest. Enrique had told his cellmate he was eager to please him. He confessed to missing his lover, an Arab. This rumor would surely pass from the prison to those in the highest social and political circles both in Manaus and the nation’s capital. Some would agree not to share what they heard. Some would see that it didn’t reach Argentina. Others would make sure it did.
To help things along, Bernadim found a slim branch with tiny thorns and gave himself several quick swats. He slashed his upper thighs, his buttocks, and then gave his stomach and chest several hard whacks. He wanted to draw blood. This would turn him into an attractive feast. It was better now to get into the river, let the fish have at him. This was preferable to dying on the land, left in a heap on the sodden jungle floor, wet with rot and excrement, without so much as a ray of light. The sun sparkled on the surface of the water, black like licorice, shiny, its warmth penetrating deeply. There were all sorts of poisonous critters that could sting a man on land, leaving him stiff as a board, paralyzed but still breathing, alive for days with ants crawling in and out of his mouth. They’d eat him alive from the inside out. With piranha, he’d go quickly. He’d beaten himself up enough to attract a large school of the red-bellied devils. A bloated corpse might float, but his bones would sink into the cold.
He stepped further into the flow of the mighty river. He found that he was able to empty his mind. Memories of his childhood whipped by. He thought of his best friend in sixth form, a chubby boy who became a provincial doctor, a pediatrist. Affonso had once confessed that he had had a recurring dream, a fantasy really, of being devoured by piranha. The young Bernadim remembered thinking at the time, “What a strange thing to contemplate.”