Fiction


Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

 

By The Edge of the Jungle

Charlie Vázquez


San Ginorio was the most beautiful city I had ever known, though I had been lost in larger metropolises and had been to smaller towns that were more accurately villages. It was a city that struck a fondness in my heart that did not compare to the cymbal crashes of San Sebastián or the suspicious humming of nighttime Perla. Built of Greek and Italian marble (brought long ago by Spanish galleons) and Mexican limestone, it was a classical and earthy utopia of eroded, watchful Cupids, chipped and cracked Roman columns, and pompous, dried-up fountains filled with leafy debris—all of this close to the jungle’s edge. I never once heard music there, that is, unless the natives chanted it.

It was a town choked by dark legends.

Built on the sands of the somber Mancha River, San Ginorio was like no other settlement I had ever known; not a birth, death or heartbreak went unnoticed in that forsaken place. Much legend gripped its history; it was woven into the vines and bricks of the village like forgotten secrets. It was also a place of unexplainable phenomena: Few fish lived in the river waters and electrical storms ignited over the skies of the town like no other in the country. Established by white men after the discovery of silver ore, it was a town built for commerce—an ocean-facing port erected for the exploitation of the local natives and the enrichment of overseas royalty.

I had met men who doubted the existence of curses and dark magic—there had always been such people—but one week in San Ginorio would’ve turned any unbeliever around. I saw many of the godless convert to such pious religiosity there that one wondered if they themselves had been subjected to some such curse. To say it was only a haunted town is not accurate either; San Ginorio was not just haunted, it was cursed. Such towns have always existed, all over the world, and were often built on mass graveyards or other such sites of human death, misery, and disaster.

That is, the San Ginorio that was marble and masonry and mortar.

The architecture was not the root of the city’s curse. The origins of that mystery are lost in the hazes of the past, and it’s hard to know what is true and illusory. What is certain, however, is that the natives learned magic from the jungle. They absorbed it from the steaming, muddy earth—when at night—they would transform into light-beings and learn the wisdom of the spotted jaguars, strangling snakes, coqui frogs, hairy spiders, deadly flowers, and choking vines. The magic became even darker when the Spanish began importing dark tribesmen from Africa as slaves—when the natives began dying, by the thousands, from European diseases.

When the violent white men discovered silver and gold and began capturing parrots and black jaguars, the natives used ancient spells of jungle magic to drive them away. These spells perpetuated hardship and misery in the white men’s lives; most of the hexed died and others left forever. The potions were most effective when they were injected into the blood of the hated man; becoming part of his cellular composition, they would continue to plague his future generations in the same way. Minute amounts of the jungle elixirs were injected into the bloodstream of the cursed with common sewing needles from Spain while they slept. These injections were often mistaken for insect bites and ignored.

These curses were passed along from parent to child, along with appetite, temperament, and skin color. When I first heard of this as a child, I dismissed it as nonsense. I didn’t believe in the power of angry magic. I remember my grandmother (a spirit-talker) warning me of such maledictions and thinking she was old and superstitious and crazy; that is, until she hissed she would never go back to that “damned and accursed church” and part of the vaulted ceiling of Our Lady of the Serpents collapsed and nearly killed a priest—at about the same time she yelled it aloud, with her arms of rage stiff in the air.

 

On a golden Sunday afternoon, while leopards slept in the zoo (they sometimes slept above the jungle pathways), Alejandro Silvestre emerged into the world, just as his grandfather Esteban was covered with a clean white sheet by the only two friends he had. After they left his wrinkled old corpse for no one to wail over, they went to the natural grottoes of Manzanilla Beach to pray for him. The natives of San Ginorio, dressed awkwardly in the style of the white men, were extraordinarily happy that day. They had been terrified of Esteban Silvestre and it was difficult for some to divine whether they were happy to see the addition to the family or if they felt salvation by the death of its heartless tyrant patriarch.

I knew exactly what they—we rather—were thinking.

The natives always claimed that Esteban had killed his father Julio (a successful prospector) in a fit of rage witnessed by no one. That was before the dramatic increase in the price of silver in Spain. It was before the corruption and greed of the Silvestre family was known. The web of superstition surrounding that family was so knotted that I assumed everything I heard about them was true. I knew that the birth of Esteban’s grandchild marked the turning of the tides, the proof that something set into motion a long time ago was still alive.

Alejandro was to inherit the Silvestre silver mine fortune one day, which was probably worth more than everything on the entire island added up. His father Silvio, now powered the empire and walked the streets in a daze of uncertainty. I had lived close enough to the Silvestre family to sense that there were more than a few threads of despair running deeply in their blood. They always gathered on days when the rains would rush in from the ocean, bringing storm-tossed ships carrying strangers from worlds far away. I always felt that the gods were reminding them of the weather Julio Silvestre was greeted by when he arrived by ship from the Spanish port of Cádiz nearly one-hundred years ago (his diaries once hung in our only museum). There were no other families like them in San Ginorio and I wondered why they chose to stay when the bustle and sophistication of San Sebastián was within a day’s reach.

Alejandro’s mother, Dominga, never spoke a word to me in the twenty years I saw her. A rich woman, one never saw the sparkle of Spanish diamonds on her fingers or the fashions of Paris draped over her sad shoulders. I cannot even say that I knew her. It was sad to think that even a child as beautiful as Alejandro could not inspire her to smile upon the world. Perhaps, she saw her dark future before anyone else could and was haunted by it. Her fate is somewhat mysterious—though it’s generally believed that she leapt into the sea from the cliffs and was never found.
As the golden-haired Alejandro grew up, I noticed his inheritance of the Silvestre family’s gloomy, imperial disposition. He chose not to play with other children and clung to his mother tightly when they walked down the street—a rare sight. I never heard him speak. The Silvestre family had him schooled at home by Spanish priests for fear of the natives’ influence at the public school. They spoke French to keep their affairs private from their Spanish-speaking native servants (some of whom did the same with our original Ocama tongue). By the age of six, Alejandro grew into his dynastic position with a degree of dark authority the natives feared. It was a popular rumor that he’d had certain servants beaten or dismissed for no reason at all. They (with the exception of me and a few others) were terrified of him and called him “Alejandro el horrible”.   

Silvio Silvestre came to me (rather unexpectedly) one day for advice. We had known each other from a polite distance, and being an educated native with an honorable reputation, he came to confide in me. He asked me if I would see him professionally and I agreed. Unaware of his motives—he was secretive after all—I consented. He was exhausted and hoped that if perhaps I were to treat him, the origin of his debilitating melancholy might be discovered.

I told him, “We’ll solve whatever it is, I assure you.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

I was the only doctor in San Ginorio that performed hypnosis, which I had learned from a French spiritualist living on the islands. I ached to explore his psyche. I was a man of honor and truth and would never have tampered with his emotions, though I had never treated someone with such profound sadness. What I would learn of this sadness was something I had always known, yet had forgotten through doubt. All of us knew it, whether we believed it or not. What I would orchestrate with his misery would challenge my morals, yet would ensure the betterment of that accursed city, perhaps forever.

Over a cup of rainforest tea, I learned that Silvio’s childhood was filled with all of the usual adventures of the countryside; he’d fished the sea and hiked the mountains and did not have to work outside of the family’s mining business. He attended five years of university in Sevilla, Spain, and knew history and languages. He had seen many corners of the world and worshipped at our Lady of the Serpents every Sunday morning.

After he finished his tea, he consented to hypnosis and I had him lie down. I assured him he would be fine and he fell into a trance instantaneously. I asked him some simple questions and was able to determine that he did not sleep well: This was the exact thread I needed to begin. 

“Do you think too much before you sleep, Silvio?”

“Yes, doctor.”

“What things do you think about?”

“Losing ships at sea, doctor.”

“Would you say that you think of your fortune often?”

“Yes, doctor—but also my misfortunes.”

 

He was, as expected, focused and serene, despite the weight of his confessions. I was not sure how to navigate the course of the investigation, since Silvio was like a delicate child before me—a slate easily wiped clean and rewritten on. And every confession that seeped from his crimson lips churned old and painful emotions in my heart.

“Are you telling me that you have more than one misfortune, Silvio?”

“Yes, doctor.”

“Can you tell me about one?”

“Yes, doctor. My wife. I have never known her to be happy.”

“How do you know she isn’t happy?”

“She’s cruel to our servants and hides from the sun.”

I told him, “I’m going to give you a few minutes to speak about your feelings. Tell me anything you’d like to.”

“Yes, doctor.”

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, doctor. My father used to pace the hallway outside my room when I was a child, and one night while we were both unable to sleep, he told me why. He told me that one of his most loyal servants, Chaco, had told him of a curse that had afflicted his former host family and had driven him screaming to the street, where my grandfather took him in.”

“Continue.”

“Chaco was a native like you, as you can imagine by his name. He was a carpenter. During his excellent service to my father they became close—even though it’s well known that my father hated the natives and treated them poorly. Chaco told him that the Mosquito Curse had been invented centuries ago by jungle people to ward off the Spaniards. It travelled from father to son by blood.”

 

I had known much about the legendary Mosquito Curse and was surprised that its folklore had been passed on to a non-native nearly intact. I suspected (and I would prove myself right) that Silvio had not shared this choking piece of superstition with anyone but me. He had probably harbored the secret for years. I imagined that it lingered in the shadow of his every thought and impulse. It was part of him. It was the suckling root of his fear.

“My father confessed his crime to me,” he continued, “and I suspect you know the outcome. All I want is for my son to be safe from it. He’s young enough to get out of its grip, I know he is. Perhaps, I worry for me as well.”

“Do you suspect this curse can be stopped, Silvio?”

“I don’t know, doctor.”

The Mosquito Curse triggered an infected man to kill his father on the day his son was born. This is how the authors of the hex divined its success. I knew that Silvio had followed through with this, all the natives did. I had heard incredulous outcries—how the curse had come back from the jungle so many decades later—on the day that Alejandro was born. The natives looked worried as they pieced together the drama, chanting in secretive Ocama, each with some detail or observation. Some of them even blamed the saddened Africans that toiled in the newly discovered gold mines, but I knew better.

“If I were to tell you how to end the curse, would you consider it?” I asked him.

“I would, doctor.”

Before instructing him I said, “The Mosquito Curse can only be stopped one way.”

 

As I watched over him, I took daring notice of his peaceful and unshaven face and the dark hair of his crown that had fallen to one side of his tilted head. A torment I’d never thought I’d express—a torment that was the fusion of sealing his fate and my love for him—flooded my heart with unbearable grief. My heart punched at my chest with the rebellion of love. My love would go forever unspoken and I muffled my tearful eruption as I longed (with everything I never had) to join him in his comfortable position. Was he wondering, from some faraway place in his soul, the same thing too?
I went out for fresh air. After composing myself in my shady garden, I went back to him. When Silvio awoke, he looked energetic, something had lifted. He paid me generously and was in a hurry to go home. I looked around my office for all of the things I would need to take with me, to San Sebastián. The antidote to a curse is often a stronger poison and only I knew the formula. The next morning, the entire island would.

As soon as he left my office, I dragged my ragged valise outside and awaited my transport to the harbor, where a ship to San Sebastián would be leaving that evening. My hands shook. The keys I would never use again kept falling out of my grip. I didn’t want to raise suspicions, so I locked the door as usual. The carriage was late and pain flashed throughout me like bolts of summer lightning. I began to dread what I had done, yet reversing it was impossible.

 

I asked the driver to avoid the unnamed road that ran before the Silvestre estate, but he informed me that flooding had cut off the nearest alternative and night was rolling in like an omen. The mountain roads at night were treacherous. I heard the beasts of the jungle, as we neared the edge of the tropical forest. I knew their voices as I did those of my relatives; they roared and shrieked and clicked: Some even wheezed their last breaths in the hungry mouths of others. 

As we came to pass the small mansion (the only such home in all of San Ginorio), I tried to discern what I was witnessing from what I had anticipated—and much to my ruin—they were one and the same. Dominga Silvestre was running out of the front gate of the mansion with a decapitated boy’s lifeless body in her trembling arms. Standing before the carriage, she wailed hoarsely with eyes as wild as a rabid monkey’s—the only sound I had ever heard come out of her. As I heard the single cry of a gun pop from inside the mansion (which began roaring afire from its core), she set the body down by the edge of the jungle—before crookedly scrambling through the darkness toward a cliff that overlooked the sea. My driver, a fellow native, cleared his throat, shook his head a few times, and commenced with our journey. I arrived at harbor, boarded my ship, and never returned.

 

*****

Charlie Vázquez is a radical Bronx-bred writer of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent. His fiction and essays have been published in various anthologies, such as the iconoclastic volumes Queer and Catholic (Taylor & Francis, 2007) and Best Gay Love Stories: NYC (Alyson, 2006). His writing has also appeared in print and online publications such as Advocate.com, Chelsea Clinton News, NYpress.com, and Ganymede Journal. Charlie hosts a monthly reading series called PANIC! (in the East Village), which focuses on unusual and original writing—from erotica to poetry to horror. He is a former contributor to the Village Voice’s Naked City blog and a retired experimental musician and photographer. His second novel Contraband, is being published by Rebel Satori Press in spring 2010, and his third, Corazón, is wrapping up for future publication.

Visit Charlie Vázquez Online at: firekingpress.com

*****

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