Story: Stranger in Panama

Corpse4U

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STRANGER IN PANAMA
I did not, as one might think, go to work as a marketing consultant for the Blodgette Brewing Company in order to see the world. A reliable income source was my chief concern in making that decision. It was only after I had put some miles behind me that I began to realize how lucky I was. Seeing the world and interacting with various people in many cultures soon proved to be the adventure of a lifetime. From being a kid who had never ventured east of Arkansas or west of Arizona, I suddenly found myself travelling to strange and remote points around the globe. It was on one such journey that I found myself arriving at General Torrejos International Airport, in Panama.

My associate and I landed late on a Friday afternoon for our two-and-a-half week stay. We were supposed to evaluate the local political and economic atmosphere, and report to corporate our chances of successful foreign marketing. Susan, my associate, had spent three years there as a Canal Zone public relations official and, as we carried our luggage to the limousine, she began giving me an initial orientation to the area.

Susan was still busily talking as we crossed the Bridge of the Americas, overlooking the Panama Canal. She pointed at familiar sights and reminisced about her experiences in this Spanish-speaking environment. She also gave me an idea of sightseeing prospects. There was a train that traveled the length of the canal and stopped near Colon, on the Atlantic side, but I wasn't interested in an excursion that would take an entire day. The whole reason I had come to enjoy my travels so much was the opportunity I was afforded to interact with people in an array of different cultures. I therefore felt that it would have been a waste of time to have traveled over eighteen hundred miles from the United States, just to see something built by Americans.

Over the next hill lay Panama City, and as the car rolled on, Susan grew silent. The old limo’s engine whined and gears rattled as we crested the hill, the stiff suspension banging my tailbone on what felt like a brick bench, but then the hill fell away, and the elevated freeway led us into the city. To our right, and as far as the eye could see, there were row after row of four and five-story apartment buildings. All were built from cinder blocks into very simple rectangular structures, mostly unpainted concrete-gray. Access to the upper floors was by metal staircases that looked like fire escapes, leading to the narrow walkways in front of the rows of rooms. Each room had one doorway and one window, with drying clothes used as doors and curtains, since none of the apartments had either of these. Most striking was the lack of breathing space. Each family had been fit into a room the size of an average American kitchen. This room was surrounded by, say, 70 identical rooms in the same building, and a few feet away, there was another building just like it. These structures were in turn surrounded by perhaps a hundred more, blending into the distance.

I had seen poverty on television, and read about it in magazines. I could have looked at a picture and said, "Yes, that's poverty," but this was no documentary. I began to daydream. I pictured myself walking among these ramshackle buildings, handing out twenty-dollar bills. . . .

Susan had apparently been thinking along different lines. She nudged my shoulder and whispered, "I'll bet a white boy wouldn't last five minutes down there." Shaken from my daydream, I looked again and realized she was probably right.

As we neared the hotel in downtown Panama City, we began discussing plans for our free time. Susan was so enthusiastic; I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was more interested in learning about cultures than cathedrals. I guess I never have been your stereotypical tourist.

Tuesday seemed like a good day to tour the city, so I made arrangements to pick up a rental car. Susan’s previous experiences here made her hesitant to drive, so I volunteered. As we left the lot of the “Econo-Rent” agency, Susan briefed me on driving conditions in Panama, and it seemed that there were only two rules: “Don't cross the double yellow line; and don't, under any circumstances, become involved in an accident. If you do,” she warned, “you lose your license until the court date. And if you're a foreigner,” she added, “you lose again, because they'll keep postponing the court date until you can't be there to represent yourself. And by the way," she concluded smugly, “don’t drink the water.”

Fine, I thought. Since a rental car was our only means of transportation, and since cultural touring was high on my list of priorities, I quickly decided not to waste my energy worrying about potential disasters.

We visited the canal first, where I discovered the cheapest passage through the locks was made in 1928 by a swimmer who paid only thirty-six cents. The canal was followed by the ruins of Old Panama City, which was destroyed in 1671 by buccaneer, Henry Morgan. Colonial Panama City was advertised in the brochure as a place where "visitors can appreciate the richness of colonial architecture.” Three steps into the apparently deserted area, however, we were greeted by a non-English-speaking local who warned us away by making slashing gestures, as though he was holding an “air” knife…. We gratefully accepted his advice and turned around.

By now it was late afternoon and, having had our fill of the city, we decided to drive out into the countryside. We traveled for perhaps twenty miles along a paved highway, passing fruit stands with grass roofs and large crudely-constructed billboards advertising "Cerveza Atlas," and "Cerveza Balboa" (our Panamanian competition). The jungle pressed in on the highway, forming a solid wall of green on either side, leaving the impression that, left unattended, there might be no highway at all in a matter of weeks or even days. I desperately wanted to see more—to learn about daily life, but it had been a long day already and, unwilling to subject Susan to my unusual touring practices, I agreed to call it a day.

***​

The next day, I was up early. The rental car wasn't due until 11:00 a.m., and I intended to get my money's worth. I had seen a road sign on the highway the previous day that had advertised “Arraigán Nueva, 10 km." The sign pointed down a rickety road that disappeared into the jungle, and it looked like the perfect ticket to a Panamanian adventure. I wasn't to learn until later how true that intuition was. Speaking no Spanish, I had bought an English-to-Spanish phrase book, and this is all I carried with me as I approached the sign pointing to Arraigán Nueva and turned down the poorly paved road.

Though there was almost no traffic, there were many pedestrians along the sides of the road carrying bundles of wood, pails of water, or boxes of groceries on their shoulders. As I passed, many would stop and put their loads on the ground to get a better look at the strange visitor. It wasn’t that I felt unwelcome, but I was impressed with the feeling that not many white people visited this part of the world.

As I drove on, I passed several intersections. At each point I chose the road in poorest condition, traveling the path least frequented, until I found myself on a gravel road passing through a shady village of cinder block houses. Ahead, a van had stopped to load some passengers. Since the road wasn't wide enough to pass, I stopped behind to wait. When the van began to back up, however, it took me a moment to realize the driver hadn’t seen me and, in any case, didn't intend to stop. I hit my horn and grabbed the shifter… but it was too late. There was a loud thud as the van plowed into the front of my little rental, then the dust billowed up, settling in slow motion on the two damaged vehicles.

Stunned, I stayed in my seat to gather my thoughts. The other driver got out right away, and I could tell by his panicked expression that my hopes for “only slight” damage were in vain.

As I opened the door to get out, I realized he was just a kid, probably eighteen or nineteen. He stood about five feet, ten inches tall, and his neatly-cut black hair framed a handsome, unblemished face. His clothes were typical Panamanian fare; a faded yellow T-shirt, revealing brown, muscular arms; dungarees, and ragged tennis shoes. He stood there for a moment, shaking his head slowly, and his expression told me far better than words that he was sorry. I pulled out my phrase book and searched in vain for a section dealing with accidents. The authors of my book had instead decided to fill it with useful phrases covering shopping and making friends—phrases like "Let me introduce my wife," and "Where can I find a large rutabaga?" Frustrated by my inability to communicate, I looked up from my phrase book and sheepishly asked "Hablo Ingles?"

At first the driver shrugged, but then he ran toward a nearby house to fetch, I was hoping, a translator.

By now, several neighbors had come out to stand in their yards or on their porches to watch the spectacle. A white man was rare enough in this neck of the woods, but a white man and a car accident had all the makings of a carnival.

After about five minutes, the driver of the van returned with a plump young girl, who was in turn followed by two small children and, at a distance, by a very friendly- looking elderly woman who had, I think, not more than six teeth in her mouth. After a brief greeting, I asked the girl to find out whether the driver of the van had any insurance, but soon realized her English vocabulary was only slightly better than my repertoire of Spanish. Frustrated and running short of ideas, I agreed to the driver's suggestion that we meet at the same location two hours later: “Dos horas,” he had said. This would give me a chance to get some advice at the rental company, and maybe even get someone who could translate for us. While we traded names and license numbers, I noticed Francisco was still pretty shaken and upset with himself for making what he considered to be a foolish mistake. I put my hand on his shoulder and smiled reassuringly, then got into my car. As he was walking by, he thrust his arm through my open window and we shook hands—a gentleman's agreement that we would both return. "Francisco Corrales," I said to myself, glancing at the scrap of paper he had given me, "I sure hope you can pay for this." I thanked our interpreter with a wave and headed back toward civilization.

Back at the air-conditioned office of Econo-Rent, Inc., I discovered that the damage to the fender and right front quarter panel came to a reasonable $350.00. The clerk explained that I was solely responsible for repairs, but invited me to ask Francisco for reimbursement. He also explained that everyone involved would benefit if the police were left out of negotiations, since they were generally only interested in getting their cut. Remembering Susan’s briefing, I agreed.

Since the clerk was a native, I asked him to write two notes to Francisco; the first simply itemized the damage to the car; and the second was a backup, to be used only if needed. This second note threatened legal action if he refused to pay—a threat I had no intention of carrying out, and a note I hoped not to use.

When I returned to the site of the accident, I was happy to discover the van parked under a shade tree. I pulled up behind him and, after a brief greeting and handshake, walked with Francisco and a younger boy, whose name I was to later discover was Dario, to the house where our interpreter lived. She met us in the yard, along with the woman with six teeth, and we all walked together to a nearby shade tree, where Francisco and I squatted down to conduct our business.

Realizing that $350.00 was probably a lot of money to a bus driver in Panama, I had waited until we were all together before handing Francisco the first note. I hoped to understand his reaction.

At first he just stared at the note, while his eyes gradually opened wider. Then he stood up and handed the note to our interpreter, as if he hadn't understood it. With the older woman looking over her shoulder, she slowly read my note, and finally dropped both hands to her sides to stare at Francisco—who could only stare back at her quizzically. After a long pause, the older woman said something I couldn’t hear. The interpreter thought for a moment and made another remark, also barely audible, and then the three of them chuckled, though this was all politely restrained for my benefit. When Francisco finally spoke, however, all restraint was lifted. They all began laughing hysterically at something, the nature of which I was afraid to guess.

Even Dario was laughing now, and each time someone would say something, it would fuel the entertainment. This amusement continued for a couple of minutes (though it seemed to last much longer) until gradually, the solemnity of the occasion returned. Somehow, the second note didn't seem appropriate now, since I doubted its threats would do more than bring hostility into what had up to now been a friendly negotiation. Instead, we went back to trying to talk, which was a shaky prospect, at best.

I tried unsuccessfully to communicate concepts such as, "If he can't pay now, when can he?" But it was quickly obvious we weren't going to accomplish anything without a more fluent interpreter. On this point, we agreed, and it was decided that Francisco and Dario would follow me back to the rental office, where we would hopefully get everything straightened out.

Standing in the office, talking once again to the clerk, it didn't take long to find out what my Panamanian friends had been laughing at, and to realize the joke was on me. Francisco's van had also been rented, and he didn't have any money to pay for that damage, let alone the damage to my rental.

Moreover, he was not only poor, but dreadfully poor, and offered to give me a tour of his house to prove it.

“Wait a minute,” I thought, beginning to see a way out of what had, until now, looked like a no-win situation. I would pay for the damage Francisco had caused, and in return he would introduce me to his family. An expensive tour, maybe, but what better way to get a tour of “a-day-in-the-life in Panama?”

Most importantly, I had been impressed by Francisco’s obvious integrity. That he didn’t run at his first chance, but was willing to own up to his responsibility, convinced me he was deserving of my trust.

Francisco looked confused that I would actually take him up on the offer to “prove” his poverty, but when I assured him that once and for all, the matter of the rental car would be laid to rest, he agreed.

***​

To this point, I had been too preoccupied with my own problems to notice much about Francisco's friend, Dario, other than the fact that he had blonde hair; an unusual, if not rare trait among the predominantly black-haired, brown-skinned Panamanians. As he held open the door to the van and smiled for me, however, I saw for the first time his piercing green eyes. Francisco's junior by several years, Dario had a slighter build, yet I would not hesitate to describe him as beautiful to the most jaded New York modeling executive.

Back in the van with the two boys and under new circumstances, all the trite greetings in my phrase book suddenly became useful. I discovered, for example, that Francisco was 19 years old, that Dario was 15, that neither was married and that Dario didn't like rutabagas. In return, I gave them similar information about myself. It's true that nothing very meaningful was communicated, but it helped to pass the time and we had a lot of fun trying to make sense of my pronunciations.

We’d been on the road for perhaps 40 minutes when Francisco hit the brakes, though I couldn't understand why—since there were no turns or houses in sight.

Francisco turned off the road, driving across the ditch toward a gap in the fence just… barely… wide enough for a van to pass through. I glanced at my chauffeur, and realized he was amused at my fear.

That was when it occurred to me that I had not mentioned my plans to Susan, that the only person who would have a clue about my situation was the rental clerk, and that even he had no idea where I might be going. I was now being driven into a jungle by two people who, a few short hours earlier I had never met, and my only possessions were a Spanish phrase book, some credit cards, and about $140.00 in cash; no pistol, no mace, no heat-seeking missile.

Branches scraped against the van as Francisco drove through a grove of trees toward a small clearing containing a bamboo house. An unshaven man of about 40, wearing a torn and dirty T-shirt and green army pants walked out of the house and waved at the approaching van. When he saw me in the passenger seat, however, his greeting turned to a scowl.

Both hands went to his hips. Francisco parked a respectable thirty feet from the man, and Dario signaled that I should roll up my window… just as two snarling dogs slammed with a thud against the door. A short exchange took place between Francisco and the man outside, and I gathered from their gestures and frequent glances toward the van that he was trying to get permission for us (or me) to pass. When they finished talking, Francisco once again put the van in gear and began driving toward the wall of vegetation that marked the beginning of the jungle proper.

After several hundred yards, we came upon another bamboo house, and here the rough terrain and dense vegetation made it impossible to drive any further. The three of us hopped out of the van and locked the doors, but I wasn't being led to the house. Instead, I found that we were walking deeper into the jungle.

We walked down the side of a hill and around a turn that brought into view a near-stagnant brook. Three bamboo poles had been laid side-by-side across the water and tied together with twine. My two friends walked across the makeshift bridge first, showing how easy it was to balance on the narrow walkway, and I think they were a little surprised that I didn't fall in when I crossed, as was I.

After following a winding path for a half-mile or so, we came to a clearing once occupied by a crop of sugar cane, but recently harvested so that only short bamboo spikes remained. By making chopping motions, as if holding a machete, and then pointing to himself, Francisco explained that he had done the harvesting himself.

"No otros?" I asked, remembering a word from my phrase book—and when he indicated that he had, indeed, received no help, I acted duly impressed.

As Francisco pantomimed his feats, I noticed over his shoulder two small huts—about seventy feet apart—on the ridge overlooking the clearing.

The path ended at a small brook, the opposite bank of which was steep and covered with slick mud. Francisco demonstrated how, using momentum from the jump, and pulling on some stringy vegetation on the hillside, one could get up above the slick mud and keep from sliding back into the muck. Once again, to the surprise of my friends as well as myself, I managed to negotiate the obstacle.

A short walk up the hillside brought us to the first of the two huts. There was a dog lying in front, and a dozen or more chickens were making themselves at home, both inside and out. In the doorway stood a woman in her forties, wearing a simple printed dress. At first she seemed nervous about my being there, but a short conversation with Francisco laid her fears to rest. She was a thin wisp of a woman, dressed in tattered clothing, yet she carried herself with dignity, and the smile that betrayed missing teeth also assured me I was welcome. "Buenas dias, senora," I offered, respectfully. She humbly nodded, and turned to usher me into her home.

Two crudely-made stools provided the only furniture on the dirt floor until the woman brought in an upholstered chair from outside, the back of which had long before been broken or sawed off. The chair was carefully placed in the center of the room and I was motioned to sit down, an offer which I humbly accepted.

The woman stepped into another room—which I took to be the kitchen, since I could see several tin cans on the dirt floor and smoke billowing behind the wall—the three of us being left to our discussion. Thanks to my phrase book and Dario's facial expressions and improvised sign language, I learned that the woman I had just met was, indeed, Francisco's mother, and that Francisco stayed in the hut further down on the ridge. Moreover, Francisco and Dario were not brothers and, in fact, didn't seem to be related other than by friendship.

After a while, Francisco's mother returned, carefully holding a glass of water, which she then offered to me. Susan’s warning notwithstanding, I could not bring myself to refuse her generous hospitality, especially since this water had apparently taken some time to procure. I accepted the glass with no intention of drinking its contents…. But the expectant faces of my hosts, combined with the sudden eruption of silence, made it seem that their entire social order hinged on my approval of the gift. Undefeated, I took a mouthful of water with the secret hope of having an opportunity to spit it back out, unnoticed—but the ceremony of expectant silence wasn't finished yet. I shuddered as the suspect substance slid down my throat, then forced a grateful smile, adding "Gracias, senora." The ritual complete, Francisco's mother clasped her hands in approval and the conversation resumed.

After about fifteen minutes of talking, Francisco and Dario stood up, signifying it was time to leave. I bid farewell to Francisco's mother and thanked her once again for her hospitality. Along the way to the second hut, he stopped and, grasping my arm, said something I couldn't understand—though I could see thanks in his expression. I put my hand on his shoulder and nodded, acknowledging his remark. I believed we had understood each other perfectly.

When we came into the hut, I realized it was by far the smallest dwelling I had seen so far. Measuring about 15 feet by 8 feet, it featured two rooms. The front room, about 8 feet square, was spanned by a homemade hammock, and served as a combination living room, dining room, and kitchen. A smaller room in the back contained two cots, taking every inch of floor space. In the far corner of the room was a cooking fire on a table, supported by rocks and heating a pot of dark, odorless liquid. On the wall next to this table was a small, crudely fashioned cabinet containing a few dishes and cups. On the opposite wall hung only a small jar of brownish liquid, with what appeared to be a fuse protruding from the lid. Noting my interest in the jar, Francisco produced a book of matches and, despite my objections, proceeded to light the fuse. I soon discovered this "Molotov cocktail" was, in fact, nothing more than a homemade lamp, and Francisco chidingly made a sound like an exploding bomb, gesturing that it might go off at any moment. We all laughed at my faux pas.

The hut had been built by lashing logs together in the form of a simple rectangular frame. A facade of vertical split bamboo shafts had been added, with spaces between large enough to allow for ample light, as well as provide for a comfortable breeze. The roof was made of bundles of long, thin leaves, tied together, and packed densely to shed the heavy tropical rains. The overall appearance of the hut was like something out of Robinson Crusoe or Gilligan's Island and I was careful, as I sat on the hammock, not to sit too hard for fear that the walls might collapse. But the walls didn't budge, and after some bouncing, I determined the hut had been built more solidly than it appeared.

Francisco and Dario were explaining to me that Francisco's father had built the hut, when a man in his forties sauntered through the doorway. Having apparently heard about the strange visitor, the man walked directly to me and shook my hand in a bold and welcoming gesture. Assuming the man to be Francisco's father, I greeted "Buenas dias," then remarked "Casa bueno," motioning to the structure surrounding us.

"Si, gracias," he was beaming now, "es frio."

"Frio," I recalled, means "cool," so I replied simply, "Si," and thus ended the closest thing to a complete Spanish conversation I had ever pulled off. It then occurred to me that this man was indeed proud of his home. Here were people crammed into huts smaller than my college dorm room, with no electricity and no running water, yet the structures were sturdy and cool, and he had made them himself. It slowly began to dawn on me that maybe these people weren't so bad off after all. The climate was comfortable year-round, and all the food they could ask for grew wild at their fingertips. I had been judging their living conditions on my standards, and would have found them sorely lacking. Francisco's family, on the other hand, used different standards—perhaps comparing their homes to the slum areas I had seen in Panama City, and had found themselves wealthy beyond measure.

These philosophical musings were cut short, however, by a sudden humming sensation in my head. For no apparent reason, I seemed to have become dizzy and disoriented. Feeling that some fresh air might do me some good, I excused myself with a smile and walked slowly out of the hut, though walking had already become something of a chore. I had felt perfectly fine a few moments earlier, but suddenly I was feeling very strange, vaguely aware that my ability to think was becoming increasingly impaired.

A tingling, numbing sensation began in the center of my tongue, followed by a cool feeling in my mouth, as though my lips had been painlessly peeled away, exposing my teeth and gums to the open air. I placed my hand over my mouth, and was relieved to find my lips intact, though my lips could not feel my hand. As this numbing sensation crept backward from my chin toward my brain, my only thought was of lying down. I stumbled back to the hut, sat on the hammock, and was vaguely aware of concerned movements among my hosts. As I lay back, I saw a beetle crawling across the hut's low ceiling.


2​



In the moonlight, I could just barely discern the tiny whitecaps, thousands of feet below. It was an unusually clear night, and I could make out Orion above the distant ocean horizon. I suddenly felt cold but, turning to summon the stewardess for a blanket, found the passenger compartment to be vacant, the hum of the engines providing the only sound. Opening the cockpit door, and finding it to be equally void of human occupation, I turned back to the rear of the plane, where I found in the center of the floor what appeared to be a small fire. As I approached the flames, the fire grew in intensity and height until it licked at the ceiling of the compartment, though it didn't seem to consume the carpet or surrounding seats. The flame was, in fact, cool to the touch, and had a more greenish tint than the usual red and yellow.

The flames eventually subsided to about waist level, revealing on the opposite side a dark figure wielding a machete. My eyes adjusted to the less-intense light, and I recognized the figure as Francisco. As I stared at him, I realized the plane was no longer flying—a nervous glance revealing that it could not have possibly been airborne. The plane was a total ruin; windows broken out, seats ripped, moss and rust growing on the carpet and fuselage—which was itself so torn and damaged as to accommodate numerous fallen branches and debris which hung from its ragged edges.

I gradually became aware that the humming I thought was aircraft engine noise now sounded more like human voices; as though many people were chanting—these I sensed might be standing in a large circle around the plane and just out of my vision. Francisco had begun to move in a sort of a spiraling dance as the chanting became more distinct and rhythmic. I began to think I heard words amongst the chants, then a young boy appeared from the darkness, his eyes glassy, he swaying slightly with the chanting, which by now had taken on epic proportions. Francisco stopped dancing and, after facing the boy for a moment, walked behind him, pressing his machete slightly into the center of the child's back. The boy simply closed his eyes and let his head fall back, as if in total submission. His long black hair concealed the tip of the machete, so that I couldn't tell if Francisco was actually injuring him, or if this was all just some sort of ceremonial rite. But Francisco withdrew his weapon, and the boy opened his eyes, returning his glassy gaze to straight ahead. Francisco then returned to face the boy, placing his hand softly on the side of his bare abdomen.

The boy was the first to smile—then Francisco; a wild, yet somehow trusting expression.

In one sudden motion of astounding grace and speed, Francisco brandished his machete in both hands, spinning on the ball of his foot one complete revolution, and leveled his weapon at the perfect moment to inflict a deep cut into the boy's throat. This entire motion was executed so deftly and with such speed that the boy remained smiling even after the wound had been inflicted. Curiously, he continued to stand, unmoving amidst the deafening chanting, and staring blankly as Francisco approached him.

Heavy streams of blood poured down the boy's chest as Francisco gently ran his hand over his back—almost as if he were helping to massage blood out of him. As the boy collapsed, Francisco dropped his machete and held him in his arms. The boy attempted a final smile, but was apparently too weak, his head falling back and revealing clearly the terrible depth of his wound. Francisco kissed his open mouth briefly, then began to drink from the wound in huge gulps. Raising the boy's lifeless arm in a sort of twisted expression of victory, he threw his own head back and cried out, as a lioness might over a fallen antelope. Cradling the boy's still form in his arms, Francisco carried him to the opposite side of the fire; the side on which I stood.

I was suddenly reminded of my own presence at this strange spectacle. Where I had felt like an unnoticed spectator, I now had the uncomfortable impression that I might have an intended part in the show. For some reason it did not strike me as odd that I had failed to notice the aircraft wreckage had apparently melted into the forest floor.

Francisco stood earnestly before me, trophy in his arms. My only thought was of escape, yet I found myself unable to move, unable to speak. I tried to reassure myself I was dreaming; that I would wake up in my hotel room and have a good laugh with Susan about the episode over breakfast. But I wasn't in my hotel….

Francisco again lifted the boy's arm, placing his limp, yet still-warm hand against my cheek. He then put his head down and took another drink from the terrible wound.

The blood on Francisco's face resembled the grease on a child's face after a hearty meal of fried food, and I wondered that a human being could treat another person as an object of consumption, or possession, or victory. With the boy's hand still pressed against my face, Francisco kissed me, and my mouth and chest were suddenly warmed with the boy's life fluid. I tried to back away—to escape the repulsive encounter—but the blood kept pouring into me. Francisco's muscular arm had closed around my head, with the other around my back, pressing me against him. I knew that I couldn't breathe, or I would inhale the blood, and I was unable to exhale, my face pressed too hard against his. I held my breath as long as I could, but knew that I would soon have to draw the plasma into my lungs. At last, my oxygen depleted, I drew in the long, painful breath.


3​



I woke gasping for air. The sound must have alerted Francisco's mother—her kind face provided my first portrait on waking. She held a cool, moist rag and gently worked at removing the sweat from my face, while I attempted to separate my recent nightmare from the realities at hand. "How long have I been out?" I queried as I sluggishly glanced around the room, remembering my hostess couldn’t understand a word I was saying. Now she looked really worried; like a lawsuit-shy hotel manager—a guest having fallen on his freshly mopped floor. "Francisco!" she cried, as she lifted a glass of water from the floor and offered me a drink. "No! Gracias," I replied, paying no heed to my social graces. She nervously smiled and exited the room, which I had by now identified as being the small bedroom in the second hut. I suddenly noticed that my clothes had been removed, apparently substituted with the yellow T-shirt and dungarees I had seen Francisco wearing (the day before? or earlier today. . .). I came to realize in the moments that followed that I was likely in danger. Though I could not allow myself to believe that any of the occurrences of my dream might have been real, I had obviously been poisoned or drugged (I thought), and in any case this clothes-swapping routine was a little too strange for me.

I found my shoes near the foot of my cot, and finding no one in the other room, I stealthily slipped out of the hut and headed down the hill, taking care to avoid the home of Francisco's mother. It was only when I reached the steep, mud-covered portion of the hill that I realized I had not yet recovered from my sickness, however. My knees buckled, and I fell headlong into the cool, shallow stream below. I stood up in the streambed, making a concerted effort not to panic, and reasoned that my lack of food and water over the previous day would not help my recovery. If I didn't make some smart moves now, I may not be able to take care of myself soon. Clothes dripping and head instantly pounding, I resumed my long walk toward the highway and civilization.

After a short while, I came upon a fork in the path, though I hadn't remembered passing such a fork on the way in. I walked a short way down each of the forks and realized that, given the density of the vegetation and the slight angle at which the paths came together, a person could have walked up either trail from the opposite direction and never noticed the other. I looked everywhere, but found no landmarks, so I chose the low road.

Within thirty minutes, I had passed three more forks; had been alternately convinced my choices were correct (by sighting "familiar" trees and curves in the path); and equally convinced I was hopelessly lost.

Even at midday the trees allowed little light into the jungle, yet I sensed that night was beginning to fall. I took a short break to collect my thoughts and massage my temples, since my headache had by now taken on sledgehammer proportions, and was distracted by an odd, face-shaped apparition in the trunk of a monstrous old tree, but found as I turned back to the path that I had forgotten from which direction I had come. Feeling the need to move in any direction, I turned to the left. That’s when I ran headlong into a spider with a body only slightly smaller than my clenched fist, on a web it had built across the path, probably to catch wild animals and tourists.

I panicked. I might have lost it because of the wriggling heaviness of the thing as I knocked it off my face and the audible "thud" when it hit the ground. I wiped my face furiously with my hands as I ran shrieking down the trail.

More than anything, I wanted to sit down and to drink some water, but I couldn't allow myself either of these luxuries, since sitting down would make me susceptible to spider attacks, and jungle water was likely to make me feel even worse (if that was still possible) than I already felt. So I kept walking, each step more difficult than the last, until there was barely enough light left to see. Even then, the spider encounter weighed in, since it was too dark to spot an awaiting trap. I leaned against a stump next to the trail and rested my head on my knees.

I don't know how long I had been asleep when I was awakened with a nudge and a bright light in my face. My headache was worse than ever, and the light sent literal sparks of pain to my head. Perhaps noticing this, my visitor moved the beam from my face to his own.

"Francisco!" I cried, in the slight glimpse I could afford to give even this reflected light. "You have given new meaning to the expression 'sorry sight for sore eyes.'" I feebly rose and part-hugged, part-leaned on him for support. He started to speak, and I could tell he was just as glad to see me. Knowing virtually no Spanish, my rough translation would have been, "Why did you run off like that? I've been looking for you half the night," and finally, "I've been worried sick about you." My unspoken apology accepted, we began the journey to someplace presumably more comfortable. I tried taking a few steps on my own but found my legs unsteady. Francisco quickly lent me his arm, using his free hand to aim the flashlight. The beam formed a bright point in the pitch-black forest, though he would occasionally lower it to view the immediate path. This lent a soft glow to his lithe form and revealed his only item of clothing as a pair of tattered shorts. As I noticed his perfectly-sculpted torso and legs, I began to reason that I may have been wearing his only set of clothing. In my mean condition I could have vomited on myself, and Francisco might then have washed me, replacing my clothes with his own so that he could clean mine in a nearby stream. This thought simultaneously came as a great comfort to me, and made me feel very foolish. In the great tradition of the typical American tourist, my own distrust of "foreigners" might have cost me my life. Now I felt only humble gratitude that Francisco hadn't given up on me.

After what seemed an eternity, I found myself being laid in a comfortable straw bed. I was first given a jar of water, then some sliced fruit, and finally a tin cup of hot, medicinal-tasting tea. I lay back, nearly comatose, and was vaguely aware of my clothes being removed, followed by a warm sponge bath. Suddenly I felt wonderfully warm all over, my headache vanishing, and long-awaited, dreamless sleep.

***​

I awoke momentarily in the early morning light. The oppressive mugginess of the day and evening had been replaced for the moment by a refreshing coolness. Francisco lay sleeping next to me, his arm protectively across my abdomen. I touched his face with my palm, then followed the curve of his neck down his arm to his hand as I relaxed once again into unconsciousness.



4​



My next waking found the humid jungle heat to have returned in full force. Francisco was nowhere in sight, nor was I certain about where I was. A quick glance about the interior of the hut told me I was not in the home of Francisco or his mother. This was a very small shed of a hut, whose only interior feature was the bed of straw on which I now lay. Finding my clothes cleaned and hanging in the doorway, I dressed and went outside to check out the unfamiliar environment. Top on my list of priorities was to find food. I was starved.

There didn’t seem to be any lingering effects of my “sickness.” I felt in excellent spirits, worried only about Susan, my job, and how stupid my explanation to corporate was going to sound. I'd think of something, I reassured myself—I always did.

Just outside the hut, I found a very old-looking tin coffee pot hanging from a spit above the small fire. Adjacent to this was a rock on which lay a dry rag and a cup. I poured myself a cup of the strong, but delicious brew, and sat on the rock to enjoy the near-deafening sounds of the morning jungle insects.

The hut was on the side of a steep hill, its small, level clearing having apparently been hewn from the forest many years before. Thick moss and fallen branches conspired, along with the closeness of the forest, to hide the tiny cabin. This, plus the lack of a visible pathway, led me to believe I had been taken to a secret place. Had there been no fire present, I guessed, a person might walk within a few feet of the hut without ever seeing it.

I suppose I sensed that someone was approaching before I heard or saw him, but soon the crackle of branches confirmed my guess. "A built-in jungle alarm system," I thought, seeing another advantage to keeping one's hideout clear of the beaten path. The footfalls, accompanied by cheerful whistling were soon followed by the appearance of Francisco through a small gap in the dense vegetation. He was carrying a pot containing, I supposed, breakfast, and wore his old favorite T-shirt and dungarees, still damp from a recent washing. Seeing I had made myself comfortably at home, he smiled and said "Amigo!" as he knelt beside me and uncovered the marvelous-smelling concoction. "Amigo," I echoed, as I lifted a wooden spoonful of stew to my mouth. I offered him a spoonful as well, which he politely refused, having apparently already eaten. He was sufficiently amused to kneel beside me and watch my ravenous appetite chip away at the meal, which was in fact, every bit as delicious as it had smelled. Composed of potato-like bits, green vegetables, and thin strips of tough meat in a watery broth, the gruel had the double distinction of being both the least-identifiable, and most satisfying meal I had ever eaten.

When I had finished, I thanked him sincerely with a hand on his shoulder, and accepted a healthy swallow of water from the plastic canteen he had slung around his neck. As I wiped the excess water from my chin, I noticed that I had been shaven.

"I have to go now," I informed him, apologetically. "Mi casa, mi amigos. . . Panama City." He had understood well enough, and nodded sadly as he put his hand around the back of my head, looking earnestly into my eyes. I'm not sure what he saw there, but obviously hadn't understood the urgency of my request.

"Uno momento," he said, holding up his index finger and disappearing back into the jungle. I called after him, but it was no use. Francisco was gone for the moment, leaving me to decide my next course of action.

After about fifteen minutes, and growing impatient, I considered striking out on my own, but found that even a short walk in any direction not only provided no navigational clues, but made relocating the refuge difficult. Remembering my previous ordeal, I decided to return to the hut and await Francisco's return. And he did—eventually. After about three hours, I again heard the telltale footfalls through the forest. An hour or so earlier, I had grown tired of the oppressive humidity. Drenched with sweat, I had removed my shirt and pants and had lain down in the relatively cool shade of the hut. Francisco appeared in the doorway with a rusty, pound-sized Folger's coffee can. Amusing to think that empty Folger's tins had risen to the status of global, all-purpose storage containers.

Seeing me in my skivvies, he laughed and teasingly stretched the elastic, snapping the taut band painfully to my waist. By now not in a particularly good mood, I unsmilingly donned my sticky pants. Undaunted, Francisco sat beside me on the straw, displaying the contents of his can, which was half-full of a finely-ground tobacco or herb, into which a crude bamboo pipe had been thrust. He produced a box of matches, and began to load the pipe.

"No!" I cautioned, as an angry parent might scold a mischievous child. "I have to go back now. I've got a career on the line here." And, seeing his confusion, resorted back to my old standards; "Mi amigos, mi casa. . . Panama City."

Understanding that he was hearing old news, and not some earthshaking new revelation, Francisco smiled reassuringly, adding "Uno momento," as he resumed his pipe loading.

I was furious. "Can't you hear me?" I yelled, now crouched aggressively in front of him. "I have to go back now." His refusal to acknowledge me only fueled my anger. Determined to get a response, I struck out at him with an open fist, glancing his hand and knocking his pipe across the dirt floor.

Francisco's eyes narrowed into slits, his taunting smile having disappeared entirely. It occurred to me in that instant that I had made a mistake—that Francisco had shown me nothing but kindness, that he had given me food and hospitality, and perhaps even saved my life. I was the same stranger who had demanded to be taken into the jungle and who was now demanding to be removed from it on his terms and at a time of his choosing. The jury was in, and had just found me guilty of being the asshole of the year.

My anger had already diffused by the time Francisco stood up. I could stay a short while longer, after which he would hopefully be prepared to return me to Panama City, my career, and a cool shower. I'd worry about explaining my absence later. Though I would have been hesitant to admit it, I also realized during the few moments before Francisco tackled me that I was no longer afraid of the consequences of my actions, or that Francisco might purposefully or accidentally hurt me. In a strange way I wanted him to tackle me. My resentment faded, I realized I might enjoy the sheer excitement of the struggle. As the victor enjoys the spoils, so the victim enjoys vicariously—as an object that is desired by one who is worthy.

***​

Of course, I figured those details out later. As Francisco's shoulder impacted my stomach, my only thought was, "Let's have some fun."

I allowed his weight to knock me over; bringing him with me in a backward somersault, the effect of which I had planned would place me at an advantage, on top of him. But I had misjudged the size of our battlefield, as was evident when he hit the bamboo wall and landed, instead, on top of me. Still, my throw had caught him off guard, because I easily wriggled away and ran outside. Perhaps mistakenly thinking I was making a run for it, Francisco came bounding out of the hut, falling easy prey to a leg-tackle. Francisco put out his hands to break the fall, and landed with a thud on the little mossy clearing. I let go of his legs and smiled triumphantly as he spat out a piece of moss. He leaned on one elbow and, wiping his face with his free hand, looked back at me with a scowl, which transformed, as he translated my expression, into an approving nod. He stood, brushing his hands together, and offered one to me in a gentleman's concession of defeat. Fortunately, I had already seen that movie and, expecting a trick, pulled his outstretched hand toward me to throw him off-balance. But Francisco anticipated my move, and used the force of my tug to initiate a maneuver of his own. In an instant he had disengaged his hand from mine. Swiveling at tremendous speed on the ball of his foot, he kicked my feet out from under me. My fall was hard and painful and, as I lay on the moss gasping for air, I felt Francisco's weight on me—his face inches from mine, and his hands tightly clenching my arms. I was given some time to catch my breath while he laughed the victor's laugh.

He then put both arms around me, squeezing me very tightly—his cheek next to mine—and spoke softly and mysteriously. This embrace lasted for some time, during which he would wriggle and generally make me feel uncomfortable in order, I think, to see if I would try to fight him again. I didn't.

After a while, he removed his right arm from the embrace and snatched a knife from his belt. This, he placed at my throat, though I still made no effort to resist. He pressed the blade into my neck, yet I still made no move to stop him—rather, I closed my eyes.

I suppose the incident wasn’t any more significant than an angry housewife waving a carving knife at her estranged husband in a fit of rage, but I understood for the first time the excitement and sheer sensual pleasure of being the victim, and it was grand. Francisco stood suddenly, beckoning me to follow him into the jungle. We had walked only a few minutes when we came upon a scene I'm sure the Panamanian Tourist Bureau would have been proud to display on their brochures. Before us was a small, clear stream running over a bed of rocks. This led twenty feet downstream to a large boulder, into which the stream had cut a path, and over which formed a waterfall, cascading ten feet into a sparkling pond. Moss and a reddish lichen covered the banks of the clear pool, lending a softness to the scene, though the encroaching darkness of the jungle made it seem terribly incongruous, as if someone had mistakenly dropped a rose into the mud.

Francisco slapped me on my bare back as if to say, "See? I told you," and quickly took off his clothes. I followed suit, and we stood in our nakedness for a moment, like two children deciding who would jump first. Before I knew what was happening, Francisco grabbed my penis and jumped.

***​

The human capacity for quick reflexes had surprised me before, but I truly surprised myself in that tenuous moment with my ability to quickly follow my favorite of all appendages into the inviting pool below. We both came up laughing and playfully splashing each other as the cool water drained away what was left of my anxiety. The water, I soon discovered, was only about four and a half feet deep, so I eventually stood under the falling water while Francisco lay on the soft bank to rest. After a while, he motioned that it was time to go.

I followed him back to the hut, where he wordlessly resumed the task of preparing his pipe. I sat patiently watching; half-wishing he would take me out of the jungle now, half-hoping he didn't. When he had finished, he produced a match and handed the pipe to me.

"No, gracias," I said, as I motioned that he should try it first. I was half surprised when he did, wondering if this was an (another?) attempt to drug me. Francisco held the match to the bowl and took a deep breath; holding it in as long as he could, then expelling the smoke slowly.

"Marijuana?" I asked as I accepted my turn at the pipe. Francisco simply smiled as he lit my bowl for me. Inhaling deeply, I was relieved to discover that the smoke was very mild, though definitely not pot. As I slowly exhaled, I detected a faint solvent-like flavor—something like turpentine, though it wasn't strong enough to make it taste bad. We repeated this ritual several times, and I felt no drug-like effects. Francisco simply laid back, eyes closed, while I watched and waited.

Suddenly, he sat up, and began to watch me expectantly, as though it was now his turn to wait. "What?" I said, smiling stupidly. Then, like a skydiver, my world fell from under me.

My sense of up and down was sideways; every pore in my body had opened, gasping for air; and my stomach had imploded into a tiny knot of super-compressed acids. Rather than laughing at my sudden confusion, as I might have expected, Francisco came to my side, steadying me and assuring me in soft tones. Predicting the next phase of the effect, he led me outside to a small bush. After what I would guess was fifteen minutes of dry heaves, I felt a little more stable and followed him back to the straw bed.



5​

Francisco sat next to me, caressing my face as my mind reeled into phantasmagoric realms. One moment his hand was human, then it became a tiger's paw; and finally an indescribable monster-space-alien claw, oozing puss and puncturing my swollen face. Not that this really terrorized me, though I could have let it. It helped that I had tripped on acid while in college, though I had never felt so out-of-control as I did now. I stayed calm and motionless in the hopes that the drug would at least settle enough for me to think. I wondered how Francisco, having smoked as much as I, was feeling. I looked up at him, but his handsome face quickly melted and ran down in chunks of molten flesh over his torso. "Ouch, that must have hurt," I chuckled as I closed my eyes and hoped the Christian rapture would take place soon.

Feeling his warm claw withdraw from the hole in my face (this was a very real illusion, complete with slurping effect and cool sensation as his talon was removed from the abscess) I opened my eyes in time to see him leave.

I tried opening my eyes again a few minutes later, but the cathedral was in flames, and the chandelier plummeting for my head was more than I was ready to handle.

Maybe if I just slept for a while . . . .

It's hard to say whether I began to dream, or my euphoric condition was creating in my mind its own waking images. In any case, I was back in the phantom airplane of my earlier dream. I saw again through the greenish flame Francisco facing a boy. Wielding his machete in both hands, he spun on the ball of his foot. Faster and faster he spun until, like a top, his features blurred into horizontal stripes. I felt a scratch on my neck and found myself facing him. I sensed the warm blood coursing down my chest as Francisco gently ran his hand up and down my back and kissed my lifeless open mouth.

***​

It had not been a dream, I thought. When we were wrestling… the spinning on the ball of his foot when he killed the boy in my dream was the sameas when Francisco had kicked my feet from under me. But I was quickly losing my sense of the real—traditional rationalities failing. I felt suddenly curious—enchanted—with the promises of the willing victim—the object of desire. At that moment I would have given my life for the pleasure of the final embrace, and to know that I would be possessed; and consumed by a beautiful lover, a worthy adversary.

***​

I suddenly felt much better—excellent, in fact. I don't know if I had before or since felt so in touch with my own emotions—my senses so keen. My eyes open, I found the interior of the hut to be exactly that (not the melting cathedral), and decided to go outside. I heard a bird chirping in the distance and, in an experiment to determine the extent of my newfound powers of perception, turned to find its source.

My head moved so fast it "swished" through the air as it turned, and I actually saw through the vegetation the small point that was the bird, at least a half-mile away. Magnifying the image, I found it to have brightly-colored wings; on its tail, an advertisement reading "Cerveza Atlas."

"How cool," I thought. "I can't wait to tell Susan about this."

I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to find Francisco had returned. We embraced affectionately, then he clasped my shoulders at arm's length, very earnestly speaking words sounding like utter gibberish. After he had finished this sincere lecture, he stepped aside and presented to me the boy, Dario.

***​

Dario, whom I figured by his stumbling balance and glassy stare was either now or would soon be on my wavelength, looked at me—or into me—with the most sincere gravity. He sheepishly offered his hand; as if he were afraid I wouldn't accept (accept what?). He seemed on the verge of tears.

"What's wrong?" I offered, knowing he wouldn't understand, but hoping he might get some comfort in the tone of my voice. When I did offer my hand, he fell to the ground, kissing my fingers in gratitude! Francisco nodded his approval, making gestures as if giving the boy to me. I had not had time to imagine what he might have meant before Dario started to retch. I helped him to the barfing bush, though dry heaves lasted only a minute or two, telling me he was more experienced at this game than I.

When he had finished, I helped Dario to the hut, where he instantly fell unconscious. Francisco brought me a cool, moist rag and kissed my cheek before leaving. Though his footsteps made no sound on the tiny moss-covered clearing, the unmistakable crackling through the jungle told me he had gone on yet another expedition.

Dario lay soundly asleep next to me, profoundly unaware of the waking world. I lifted his eyelid to get a glimpse of an amazing green eye, and in it saw no dilation—no waking resistance. I allowed myself to imagine I owned this exquisite form, and cradling his head—my head—in my hands, kissed his forehead. I lifted his hand and brushed the elegant fingers across my mouth. On release, his arm fell heavily onto the straw. One at a time, I raised Dario's arms above his head; then, straddling his body, pulled his T-shirt up to his elbows. Kneading my hands down his chest and abdomen, I worked my way to the fastener on his jeans. These I removed, with his underwear, inch by inch, gradually revealing his torpid penis, and his smooth, well-proportioned legs.

From the opposite side of the room I viewed the perfect body. Dario's striking golden hair fell casually across his forehead. His delicate facial features and lovely limbs and torso combined to create a tantalizing picture. He was no picture, however. Transformed from person to thing of beauty, he was mine.

The illusion was shattered when Dario began to stir. He was, after all, and in all his splendor, a cognizant being, and any self-motivating creature can never be truly "possessed" by another. Flushed with embarrassment (why?), I returned to his side and began to wash him with the rag Francisco had left.

After cleaning each portion of his body, I dutifully dressed him, and sat holding his hand and caressing his face.

Dario’s eyes fluttered—the slow, depressed breathing of deep sleep replaced by the shorter gasps of a waking boy.

When he saw me next to him, he sat upright and embraced me tightly, his head on my chest. Strangely, there seemed to be a note of desperation in his expression and posture that made me wonder what he was thinking. I didn't think he could have possibly loved me, yet since our meeting in the clearing, had I sensed that he wanted me? I wondered if I, the hapless stranger, might be the intended sacrifice in some future ceremony in which Dario was to be my conqueror; or if he, the beautiful child, was to be mine. Perhaps we were expected to fight to determine who was worthy of survival; or maybe we were both—as rare blooming flowers in the Panamanian jungle—lambs for the slaughter, comforting each other in our last moments.

I thought of the strange looks I received as I first drove into the jungle; of the man with the dogs, who seemed to warn Francisco about allowing me to enter; of Francisco's mother who, hesitant at first, seemed part of the plot against me when she gave me drugged water. Finally, I thought of Dario, holding open for me the van's door—his striking appearance sending my senses reeling.

***​

I held the boy away from me for a moment—gazing into his trusting eyes saw no plots, no agendas, no paranoia. I smiled and we kissed a long kiss. Dario stood and removed his clothes while I watched, then ran out into the jungle.

I recognized his direction, and was not surprised when I discovered we had arrived at the waterfall and pond. Dario never paused, but dove from the boulder in a graceful arc while I removed my trousers. The cool water had a marvelous feel against my skin under the influence of the drug. Every pore seemed to be screaming in excitement and pleasure. Around us, the dimming light made the air somehow thicker—almost tangible—and lent a smoky, mystical effect to the event.

Dario took my hand and led me to the bank, where he bade me to lie, not parallel to the water, but perpendicular, so that the pool lapped into my hair, my feet pointing uphill toward the encroaching jungle blackness. The bank was steeper than it had appeared, and blood rushed into my head, but this only seemed to serve to feed my brain, my senses reaching an extreme height of awareness. I felt whole, omniscient, euphoric. Lying beside me, but propped up on his elbow, Dario placed his index finger firmly across my throat, then withdrew it in a clean stroke. He was pretending to kill me. He then bent over me, playfully biting my chest—the lioness eating her prey. I put my hand on the back of his head and ran my fingers through his hair, but he gently returned my arm to the ground as if to say, "You're supposed to be dead, remember?"

Laying his hand across my eyes, which I obediently closed, Dario tried his full weight on me, and kissed my face and shoulders. He then became preoccupied with my legs, following each muscular line with his fingers. This activity especially aroused me, though I made sure to remain perfectly motionless.

Straddling my waist, but keeping his weight on his knees, Dario then reached behind me with both arms, lifting gently. This small effort, along with the slope of the hill, caused me to slide a few inches into the water. My head tilted back over a slight depression, submerging my eyes and ears, but leaving my nose and mouth free to breathe. This was a truly wonderful sensation, since I could now hear the pond, and felt strangely a part of its secret, nocturnal world. He then began to knead my arms as I felt the moist organic warmth of his mouth close around me.

As Dario continued to work this magic, I felt myself sliding further into the pond. Water trickled into my nose, bringing sharp pangs of confused pain to my sinuses; but I convinced myself that I was a part of the pond now. I was no longer a person, but an integral piece of the grand mystery. All my life I had consumed, and now, at last, I was being consumed by beauty itself—the obscure object of desire.

My mouth remained above the water for some time, and I once again grew comfortable—my level of arousal at its absolute height. I began to wonder if Dario would consummate our union; if he desired me enough to devour me, to absorb my life force. I contemplated purposefully allowing myself to slide further, but this would have served no purpose. I did not want to take my life, but to give it—or rather to have it taken from me—to be exploited and ravaged in my dissolution into the abyss.

The moment finally came. In a motion of drug-bolstered, ravenous desire, Dario released my arms into the pond. A strange feeling—my head submerged, water lapping at my stomach—embraced both by pool and boy—Dario groping at my abdomen and back, his oral stimulation reaching a furor of pleasure and pain. My oxygen expended, I convulsed in spasms of physical delight as my lungs filled with the thick, cool water.

My dream of Francisco and drowning in the sacrificial boy’s blood had been real…. I waited for that moment of drowning again—I longed for it….

Gasping for air—writhingly refusing to sit upright—until a peace settled over me. My mind spun to the bottom of the pool, and I sightlessly and effortlessly began to move about, an infinitesimal particle in the ocean to which I was now joined. I was finally home . . . .



6​



I felt Dario's palms being thrust painfully into my chest, forcing me to exhale rivulets of water. As I choked to regain my breath, he pulled my arm, dragging my convulsing form to a more comfortable, head-uphill position. He then clung beside me, anointing my body with his touch. After an agonizing awakening, I felt better, and we embraced each other, kissing each other's faces, mates for life in the awesome blackness of the void.

I stopped to get my pants as Dario led me by the hand through the darkness. In the murkiness of the night forest, I became quickly disoriented; a confusion more profound because we weren’t returning to the hut along the same route on which we had left. Travelling through the jungle was tricky—a task made even harder by the steep grades and fallen limbs, since we weren’t following a trail anymore. I was amazed that Dario could find his way through this maze of trees, and my estimation of him in my drug-altered state soared to god-like proportions.

I began to make out a dim, flickering light through the trees—this, gradually, becoming a campfire . . . in a large clearing. As we neared the source of the light, Dario's silhouette began to glow—the black figure’s edges ablaze in the mystical light. One moment he was an eight-year-old child; the next, an Indian warrior; but when he turned his head toward me as if to say, "We're here," he was Dario again. "Dario," I thought to myself, "what further wonders have you brought me to see?"

When we reached the edge of the clearing, which was about the size of a baseball diamond, I recognized Francisco, adding more logs to what had already become a large bonfire. At the far edge of the clearing stood a small bamboo lean-to, not unlike the fruit stands I had seen along the Panamanian highway in what now seemed like a distant and remote world.

Francisco wasn't aware of our presence until Dario placed a hand on his shoulder; and even then, after he had turned around, it took him a moment to translate his own hallucinations into the realization that we had arrived.

Francisco beamed, opening his arms wide in a gesture of welcome. This image, completely silhouetted by the flames of the huge fire, transformed him into a mighty deity—Hephaestus, god of fire.

With infinite grace, Hephaestus reached down, and rose brandishing a gleaming silver sword. This he presented to me, though like a spectator who hadn't fully comprehended his impromptu part in the play, I simply stood, mouth open, in awe of the spectacle. The God wasn't interested in explanations or second chances. Francisco simply and without malice turned and offered the benefaction instead to Dario, the young warrior.

Dario, with a princely nod, accepted the sword, testing its blade with his tongue as his green eyes rose to meet mine.

***​

In a lightning bolt of revelation, I instantly came to understand many things; why old men enjoy sending young boys to war, and why young boys willingly go. I fully comprehended the lost principles of sport, of business, of desire, of longing for the forbidden fruit. In some strange way, the hidden meanings of all competition lay before me, explaining man's overpowering compulsion to prove himself better than other men. Like the ancient Romans, man's secret longing had always been to have power over other men, but not for the reasons he had guessed. Neither profit nor fame could quench his desire. His victories remained hollow. Victory over a worthy opponent—the ability to devour the very life of that opponent—all spoke of man's unmentionable need to possess another. Sadly, having been historically incapable of understanding the nature of his own desire, man had never learned to consummate the true object of his yearning, thinking always that perhaps the next victory . . . or the next . . .might bring the fulfillment he so desperately craved.

***​

Dario understood the nature of desire. Having never spoken with him, I knew this, if nothing else, about him.

Francisco respectfully stepped back as Dario approached me, weapon upheld. With his free hand, he clasped mine. With deadly gravity, he hesitated but for a moment, then confidently placed the machete in my fingers, closing them around the hilt. As he backed away, he reached for my free hand, placing it softly against his cheek. The warrior had resigned his post, transforming before my eyes into the boy.

I walked behind him, my arm gradually circling around his neck; I kissed his beautiful hair as his hands fell to his sides. Releasing the victim, I walked around his still-nude form one final time to view his lovely features.

I had rarely wielded a machete before, and was afraid I might miss my mark, causing him to suffer, had I attempted Francisco's adroit routine. Instead, I returned to my place behind him—my heart pounding with the anticipation of the kill.

I placed the hilt in my right hand near Dario's throat, and the fingers of my left alongside the blade—for the purpose of guiding it smoothly and evenly. An old expression came to mind: "Sweets to the sweet," I thought. Then, in a spasm of speed and power, I drew the machete though the flesh of his tender throat. Dario gasped in astonishment as I dropped the weapon. My hands went to support him as I circled around to his front, though he showed no signs of weakness. The blood was already streaming down his chest as I awkwardly stroked his face and back—his gaping mouth forming voiceless words—but in his eyes, I saw only wonder.

His breath came in short strokes now, as he held my hand in his, brushing my fingers across his lips. His eyelids grew heavy, knees no longer sure. I helped him to the ground, my mouth to his neck, and drank his flowing blood in voracious swallows. I looked up to find him barely breathing, and kissed his open smile. His tongue reached out to meet mine, then he licked some blood from my face before he fell into what appeared to be a deep sleep.

Dario's breathing had become slight as I returned to the carnival feast. Suddenly, his body shuddered. I lifted my eyes to the raging flames, and watched his spirit rise into the night sky.



7​



Could this blood-streaked, inert form lying in my arms be truly mine? Could it be that I ownedDario? This same being whom I had at first desired from afar—the terrible, aching yearning that can never be fulfilled—had taken me to the gates of nirvana and back. He had taken my life from me—my soul; then, like a god, had given them back. Now, he lay in my arms without sense, heavy and passive—like a precious rose, clipped in the stem at that tender moment when its beauty is most exquisite.

I sat squeezing him, so that his arms jutted awkwardly into the air, kissing his face and repeating, "Dario, my sweet Dario."

Francisco kneeled before me and gently removed the body from my arms. Dario’s head fell back, revealing the chasm of his wound as Francisco carried him to the edge of the clearing. I followed, seeing only the boy's dangling limbs, now reduced to branches, susceptible to the slightest breeze—and this in stark contrast to Francisco's effortless strides—the taut muscles of his legs and back saying to Dario, “you will never reach this age.”

Francisco stopped at the lean-to, softly illuminated by the glow of the fire, where he stooped, depositing the boy’s corpse on a bed of straw. He bade me to sit as he produced, from a small wooden box; a curved needle attached to a long piece of string, and set to the task of mending Dario's wound. This complete, he tied a knot, biting the string close to the skin, and I could see by his work that he was not unpracticed in this art. Francisco then retrieved from the corner a can full of water, and pulling from it a rag, began to wipe the drying blood from Dario’s neck and torso. When he had finished, he adjusted Dario's hair with a wooden comb, and motioned for me to lie beside the body. Francisco gently washed my bloodstained face, arms and chest, then stood back to view his creation—his two fallen angels. Standing there, hands on his hips, he became once again Hephaestus, lord of all he surveyed.

The god knelt down and rolled the boy on top of me, the weight of our bare chests together causing Dario to exhale his sweet, still-warm breath. I held Dario's head in my hands, kissing his closed eyelid as Francisco removed his clothes and laid himself on top of us. He began biting the boy's hair and shoulders as he violently thrust between pliant cheeks. My arms above my head on the straw, Francisco caressed them with Dario's hands -- all the while looking sternly into my eyes, as if to say "I'm making love to you." Francisco's body hardened in spasms of pain and joy as he cried out, his violent thrusts becoming erratic and stiff. Expended, he withdrew, patting Dario's ass as if to say "Good boy," before rolling away to sleep.

I embraced Dario, entangling his arms and legs in mine, and rolled with him out onto the hard surface of the clearing. Holding the top of his head between my thighs, my feet on his upstretched arms, I entered his open mouth, chewing his sleeping member in mine, and groping his muscular, hairless legs. I then sat away from him a moment, watching the glow of the fire dance on his supple skin. With a violent kick, I rolled him over—his arm flying into the air and landing in a thud that might have once been painful. How strange he seemed, absent and unfeeling.

I entered him from the rear, driving myself deeply into his cooling depths. I thought of the pond, and wondered where Dario was now. I reached under him, kneading his chest and abdomen, and rolled with him again, his once-graceful arms now falling heavily against my head. Still inside him, I stood, lifting him with me—a puppet on a string, a toy. I carried him thus to the fire, where I posed him in a sitting position, legs crossed, hands in his lap. I seated myself facing him, holding him up, and opened his eyes.

In an eerie moment of suspended disbelief, I thought Dario was alive again. He seemed to smile at me and asked me why I had brought him back. I asked him if I had hurt him, to which he answered "Yes, but not bad.”

“It was like being pricked with a needle,” he said, smiling his infectious smile, “it only hurt for a moment," and we both laughed. I asked him why he chose me, and he answered, "No one chooses whom he will love."

I wept as Dario's lifeless head fell into my lap. I softly touched his hair and back, my tears falling like sprinkles of rain onto his head. I remembered the pond, my pain as the water trickled into my nose, my acceptance of death, my insatiable desire. I stood and, walking around the great circle of the fire, returned to find the crouched figure of a nude boy who had apparently fallen asleep while sitting in its warmth. I tried nudging him awake, though he seemed so utterly exhausted as to be unresponsive to physical stimulation. It was only as I carefully lifted his head from his lap, seeing his frozen, hollow stare, that I realized he was dead. How tragic, I thought, that a child so captivating—so exquisite in all his features—should be squandered at such an age. I didn't sleep that night. In the eternity of single moments that followed, I explored every feature of him—every curve, every strand of hair every line on his hands, alternating between the beauty of the part and the effect of the whole, and slowly coming to understand what I had done.

Retrieving the curved needle from the lean-to where Francisco lay, I punctured his chest. His flesh stretched as I pulled the string completely through the tiny wound, but he neither winced nor twitched. I picked up his passive body and dropped it roughly back to the ground, but he made no effort to break his fall. Then, holding his perfect leg in my hand, I stuck his foot into the dwindling flames -- not long enough to sear the flesh, but long enough to cause pain—and never once did Dario cry out.

What had I done?

“Wake up, damn you,” I cried, “WAKE UP.”

I carried him back to the lean-to, still weeping, laying the boy next to Francisco's sleeping form, and began to caress him with Dario's lifeless hands. I believed I was being swallowed into Dario's form—felt myself slipping away, until I was no longer there. I was wearing Dario's skin. I had re-animated his body. I was Dario. I had brought him back. The effect seemed so real to me that I wondered if perhaps Dario had killed me—if he had consumed my spirit—if all that I had experienced had been a part of my dying dream—and if I was now a part of him—myself a mere phantom—this illusion becoming a necessary comfort against my growing anguish.

Dario lay on Francisco's sleeping body, his groin swelling with anticipation. He became fascinated with Francisco's elegant musculature, suckling on his upstretched arms, and gently touching his narrow waist. He reached under Francisco's buttocks and thighs, spreading his legs apart as he pressed their groins together and opened his mouth with a passionate kiss. Lying thus, he allowed Francisco to breathe into his lungs, exchanging air until Francisco lethargically turned his head. Dario laid still, his mouth against Francisco's ear, quiescent and drowsy after the long night. The sun had risen, the jungle coming back to life, as Dario, exhausted, rolled away to sleep.






8​



I awoke with Dario in my arms, his head on my shoulder, an arm behind my back, the other slung across my chest, hand gently clasping my arm. He was cold now, and his flesh had taken on a plastic feeling, though he was every bit as beautiful and precious as he had always been. Francisco had already dressed, and stood across the lean-to drinking from a can, watching us. I accepted a long drink, and he indicated that it was time to go as he kissed first Dario, then me. I quickly donned my pants, staring all the while at the boy's paralyzed body, then lifted him into my arms and followed Francisco into the jungle.

The trek through the forest should have been easier under the light of day. Carrying Dario's weight was nothing compared to the weight of guilt I felt for destroying him. His arms and legs bounced against my thighs, his head rocking gently against my bicep. His cool flesh felt good in my hands and against my bare stomach, reminding my every step that we had both been fulfilled in our deepest hunger. We had shared the fruit of the forbidden tree; we had dared to ask the un-askable question, to speak the unmentionable word. We had not only discovered the lost fountain of desire—we had both drank deeply.

We arrived, at length, at the waterfall, and I followed Francisco down to the pond, where he gingerly removed Dario from my arms, placing him on the bank in the manner Dario had once done for me. Then, gently holding his legs, Francisco lowered him to the water.

Dario floated gracefully to the bottom of the crystalline pool, his arms upstretched like a watery spirit. Francisco didn't bother to remove his clothes, but dived headlong in a familiar arc. He came up suddenly, exhilarated, clothes clinging, shaking the water from his hair, and bade me to join him. I removed my pants, jumping in beside him, and he motioned for me to bring Dario as he began trudging through the cool, chest-high water. I pulled Dario up by the arm. His head fell back as it left the water, the dampness of his hair causing it to cling tightly to his scalp and neck, and accentuating the fine bone structure of his face. I slung his head over my shoulder and locked my hands under his buttocks, providing him with a seat straddling my waist, his hands dangling loosely in the water at my sides.

Dario seemed to grow heavier as we exited the pool on the downstream side. I followed Francisco through the center of the stream (the banks being too steep here to allow passage) for a hundred feet or so, till we arrived at an open area. To our right, the stream had created in the sand and mud a small, stinking, stagnant pool. Francisco broke a long, dead limb from an overhanging branch and struck it into the edge of the mud, where it stuck, as though he had just planted a dead tree. Grasping the top of the branch, he then easily pushed it until it was completely submerged. With a slight smile, he continued the motion until he had submerged his entire arm to his shoulder. When he removed his arm it was without stick, but was covered with thick, muddy sand. The slight depression in the pool closed upon itself, leaving no trace that a large limb had just been purposefully hidden.

***​

My life, my career, my morality, the world of men and competition and struggle—all these things seemed in my distant past. I had, in the previous three days, discovered my true self. I had experienced Aristotle's elusive eudaimonia—and I didn't belong in the civilized world anymore. I held in my arms my true love—my ideal—and I knew that I would never find another like him—was afraid of myself if I ever did.

Francisco, for the first time since we had met, looked truly surprised as I carried Dario into the pool. He cried out in protest, but there was little at this point he could do to stop me. I held Dario tightly in my arms. Nearing the center of the pool, I found that I could move no further. My legs stymied, I pressed him against me tightly as the mud rose over my shoulders, vaguely aware of Francisco's protests. Just before the mud reached my mouth, I kissed him, breathing air into his lungs, and taking his into mine. "This will be our final, eternal kiss," I thought, as the darkness closed over our heads.

***​

Dario had come back to life. He began squirming and writhing in my grasp, pushing me away in a fit of panic. My lips were violently torn from his, my only thoughts being, "What magic is this, my love?" His straddle at my waist became a vice grip, pushing me backward through the plasma, separating me from his embrace. "No!" I thought, "Come back to me!"

My head shattered through the surface of the pool. I felt like an infant who, having been borne, wanted only to return to the womb. "No!" I cried, coughing up stinking bits of grit, "NO!"

Dario's hand . . . his beautiful hand, slowly sank into the murky depths below.



9​



Francisco, legs still locked around my waist, and firmly holding the stringy vegetation on the bank of the pond, breathed in laborious heaves to recover from his supreme effort. I must have looked like a comical reject from a low-budget horror film as I turned to ask him why, and he, tears flooding his eyes, held the back of my mud-covered head and kissed me deeply and passionately.

I rested there for a time in the comfort of his arms, watching the surface of the pond, thinking of Dario and wondering how many other boys shared his resting place.

We walked solemnly back to the waterfall, under which Francisco bathed me, wiping mud from me with his shirt. We returned to the secret hut, where he prepared for me a meal of fresh fruits, though I wasn't hungry—the flavorless food sliding in lumps into my stomach. I looked at him and realized that he loved me, or thought he did. I wondered if he had loved me so much that he had given to me the boy, Dario; or if Dario's love alone had brought us together. I remembered our struggle—how Francisco had tested me with his knife. Had he found me to be a worthy opponent, a suitable lover? Perhaps he had hoped that I would take him in the grand sacrifice, or perhaps he simply wanted a partner to enjoy with him in his secret pleasures—a partner he could keep hidden in a concealed hut in the midnight forest.

I lay with him on the straw bed. Holding him, we comforted each other. At length, I held him away from me, looking sadly into his eyes. "You know I have to leave. I can't stay here. Mi amigos, mi casa . . . Panama City."

Francisco beamed confidently, shaking his head no. "Uno momento," he said, holding up his index finger. And he grabbed me, tickling me, so that we both ended up in a giggling entanglement on the floor.

We stayed in the hut the entire day, alternating between sleep, and tender, comforting caresses. Dusk finally came, and with it, Francisco's departure. I started to follow him but, with a gesture of deadly gravity, he warned against it. I returned to the hut and lay on the tiny clearing, hands behind my head, looking up at the budding stars.

"What a wondrous life we live," I thought. How easily corrupted. How easily are we reduced and rotted into nothingness; our life, our beingannihilated and consumed by the living universe. The wheel of life rolls under us, into us, over us. All we are can be reduced to sensation: our nerve endings, our taste, our smell—the messages to the minds that make us unique. Sensation begets experience begets life begets death.

"Why not?" I pondered. I had never felt so excited, so happy, so alive, as when I was closest to death. We are lonely creatures, borne from the continuum of souls into a discontinuous and isolated physical form. If sex represents our desire to be less alone by possessing another, would it not, then, be the ultimate earthly orgasm to rejoin the continuum? The French phrase for orgasm, literally translated, means "little death."

Are death and sex at their essence not the same?

I smiled at my clever twisting of every morality, every commonsensible thing I had ever been taught. I had become, I realized, absolutely decadent, and it was exhilarating. "Fuck God," I yelled. "Fuck the purists. Fuck Mill and Kant and Aristotle and Rights and Justice. Long live Hess and Kafka and Nietzsche. Long live Decadence and Sin and Lust and Fulfillment." I laughed madly as I rolled about on the moss. Seeing, in the moonlight, a large spider crawling across the clearing, I tossed it into the jungle, saying, "Be free! Go find a lover . . . and eat him."



The next day, Francisco brought me a boy.
 
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