PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
When I reached the frigate, I withdrew to my cabin and, being extremely tired, I went straight to bed. No sooner had I turned out the light than I was aware that the slumbering snakes of desire that had lain coiled about my heart all day, waiting to bite, were stirring. At the same time, I was filled by a terrible melancholy, full of confusion and mystery. The melancholy of sex that contains the seed of the great human sadness. The memory of La Niña Chole fluttered weightlessly, stubbornly about me. Her Indian beauty, her priestess charm, her serpentine grace, her sybilline eyes, her shapely hips, her troubling smile, her little girl's feet, her bare shoulders, everything the mind could imagine, everything the eye could see, was fuel to the voracious fire in which my flesh burned. I imagined the youthful, glorious forms of that Yucatán maiden, like a Japanese mussumé, blooming amongst gentle breezes and then, veiled at first, half-opening, firm, cool, luscious and fragrant as Japanese roses in the gardens of Mexico. Such was the suggestive power of memory that, for a moment, I thought I could smell the voluptuous perfume that wafted from her skirt as she swayed along.
Gradually, my eyes closed from sheer weariness and the monotonous, regular lapping of the water finally plunged me into amorous dreams, feverish and restless, a representation and symbol of my life. I woke up at dawn with my nerves jangling as if I had spent all night in a hothouse amongst exotic plants giving off rare, penetrating, aphrodisiac perfumes. Above my head, I could hear the sound of confused voices and the flap of bare feet, accompanied by much splashing and coming and going. It was the time for sluicing down the deck. I got out of bed and went up to the bridge. There I stood breathing in the light wind that smelled of tar and seaweed. The heat at that hour is delicious. You can feel voluptuous tremors in the air; the horizon laughs beneath the lovely sun.
A skiff was approaching, wrapped in the rosy vapour that the dawn spreads over the blue sea. It was so slender, light and white that it merited some classical comparison: a seagull or a swan. Seven oarsmen were seated on the benches. Beneath a canvas canopy erected on the poop deck, a figure dressed in white was sheltering from the sun. When the skiff reached the frigate's side, I was waiting by the steps, in vague expectation of some stroke of good fortune, exactly what, I did not know. A woman was sitting at the helm. The canopy only allowed me a glimpse of the edge of her skirt and a pair of queenly feet shod in thick-soled slippers of white satin, but my soul told me who it was. It was her, the young woman from the palaces of Tequil! Yes, it was her, lovelier than ever, her faced half-covered by a silk scarf. There she was, standing on the bench, leaning on the herculean shoulders of a black sailor. The smile on her full, red lips had all the disquieting grace of an Egyptian or a Turanian. Beneath the shadow cast by her lashes, her eyes seemed mysterious, chimerical, distant, reminiscent of those ancient, noble races who in far-off times founded great empires in the countries of the sun. The skiff pitched up and down alongside the frigate. Half-frightened, half-amused, La Niña Chole gripped the giant's curly hair as, still carrying her, he leapt on to the ship's ladder. They both laughed, their faces wet with spray. Once on deck, the black colossus left her and entered into a whispered conversation with the boatswain.
I ran to the room through which they would have to pass. Never has my heart beat faster. I remember clearly that the room was deserted and rather dark. The dawn light glittered on the windows. A moment passed. I heard voices, laughter. A more playful, brighter, more joyous ray of sun lit the room and the mirrors reflected back the image of La Niña Chole.
It was one of those long, calm, muggy days at sea which, on a sailing ship, seem endless. Only the occasional warm breeze rippled through the rigging, making the sails flutter. I wandered about in a state of constant alertness in case La Niña Chole should appear on deck. A vain hope. La Niña Chole remained closeted in her cabin, which is perhaps why the hours seemed to hang even heavier with tedium. Disillusioned with that smile which I had seen and loved on other lips, I went and sat at the stern.
On the sleeping emerald of the sea, the frigate left a curling wake of bubbles. For some reason, there resurfaced in my memory a song from Latin America that Nieves Agar, my mother's dearest friend, had taught me many years ago, in the days when I was a golden-haired little treasure who would fall asleep in the laps of the ladies invited to the soirées at the Bradomín's palace. I have never lost my taste for falling asleep in ladies' laps. Poor Nieves Agar, how often you rocked me to sleep to the rhythm of that habanera that tells the story of a Creole woman more beautiful than Atala, sleeping in a silk hammock in the shade of the coconut trees! It could be the story of another Niña Chole.
Dreamy and melancholic, I stayed all evening sitting in the shade of the jib that hung limply above me. Only as the sun was setting did a breeze get up and the frigate, with all its sails unfurled, was able to round the Island of Sacrifices and anchor in the waters of Veracruz. With my soul in a state of almost religious fervour, I gazed upon that burning beach where the Spanish adventurers, sons of Alarico the Barbarian and Tariq the Moor, were the first people from the Old World to disembark. I saw the city that they founded, and to which they left a brave legacy, shimmering on the shores of the still, leaden sea as if mesmerised by the route that first brought the white men. On one side, on a deserted granite isle, the Ulua Castle bathes its feet in the waves, a romantic shadow evocative of a feudal past that never existed and, in the distance, the Orizaba mountains, white-capped as any venerable grandfather, stand silhouetted - fantastic and improbable - against a limpid sky of classic blue. I remembered long-forgotten books I had read as a child and which used to make me dream of that land, that daughter of the sun: historical novels full of descriptions of men with coppery complexions, sad and silent as befits vanquished heroes, and virgin forests populated by birds with brilliant plumage and by women like La Niña Chole, dark-skinned and ardent, a symbol of the passion spoken of by one sad poet of the time.
Since one cannot renounce one's country, I, a Spanish gentleman, felt my heart swell with enthusiasm, my mind fill up with glorious visions and my memory with great historical deeds. My fevered imagination evoked the adventurer from Estremadura who set fire to his ships while his men, scattered about the beach, watched him out of the corner of their eye, their moustaches waxed in the old-fashioned, military way, their manly faces sombre, weatherbeaten, like the patina you see on figures in very old paintings. I was about to disembark on that sacred beach, following the impulses of a vagabond life, and as I was about to lose myself, possibly for ever, in the vastness of the old Aztec empire, I felt the august murmurings of History stirring in my soul, the soul of an adventurer, a nobleman, a Christian.
We had only just anchored, when a lovely flotilla of skiffs and canoes was launched from the shore. You could hear the monotonous sound of oars and paddles from a long way off. A few heads appeared over the gunwale of the frigate, excited passengers swarmed about, and there were agitated comings and goings between decks. Loud voices were raised in Spanish, English and Chinese. Everyone was working frantically and signalling to the Indian boatmen to approach. They manoeuvred, jostled and scuffled until, finally, like a rosary unravelling, the rope ladder was let down into the canoes surrounding it, their oars at the ready. Then the flotilla dispersed. Far off, you could still see one tiny figure waving his arms and hear voices that only increased and accentuated the solemn stillness of those burning regions. Not one head was turned to bid farewell to the frigate. Off they went, their one desire to reach the shore as soon as possible: the conquistadors of gold. Night was approaching. At that twilight hour, the ardent desire provoked in me by La Niña Chole became distilled and purified into a vague longing for an ideal, poetic love. It gradually grew dark. The breeze moaned, the moon shimmered, the turquoise sky grew black, a stately blackness from which the pellucid stars shone forth - the Latin night of which the poets speak.
I had just gone down to my cabin and was stretched out on my bunk smoking a pipe, dreaming, possibly, of La Niña Chole, when the door swung open and in came Julio César, the mulatto boy presented to me in Jamaica by a certain Portuguese adventurer who, in the fullness of time, reached the rank of general in the Dominican Republic. Julio César stood at the door beneath the canopy formed by the curtains.
'Master, a black man has come on board who dives into the water and kills sharks with his knife. Come up on deck, master, don't delay!'
And he was gone, like one of those Ethiopian prison warders who stand guard over princesses in enchanted castles. Spurred on by curiosity, I went after him. I stood on the bridge lit by the placid brilliance of the full moon. A massive negro was standing on the deck in dripping clothes, shaking himself like a gorilla; he was surrounded by many of the other passengers and was smiling broadly, baring his white teeth like some friendly beast. A few paces away, two sailors were bent over the starboard gunwale, hauling in a shark with its throat half-cut, thrashing about over the side of the ship. Suddenly, the cable snapped and the shark disappeared in a churning mass of foam. Tightening his thick lips, the great negro muttered:
And he walked off, leaving the damp traces of his bare feet behind him on the ship's deck. A woman's voice called to him from far off:
'Just a moment.'
The pale shape of a woman stood silhouetted in the doorway of the lounge. There was no doubt about it, it was her! But why had I not sensed her presence? What were you doing, my heart, that you did not tell me she was there? Ah, with what pleasure I would have lain my heart beneath her pretty feet to be punished. The sailor approached:
'What can I do for La Niña?'
'I want to see you kill a shark.'
The negro smiled the white smile of the savage and said slowly, never once taking his eyes off the waves glinting silver in the moon:
'I can't, mistress, there's a whole pack of them now.'
'Are you afraid?'
'Of course not! But I would have reason to be, since it's a dangerous time. Just look...'
La Niña Chole didn't let him finish:
'How much did those gentlemen give you?'
'Twenty tostones: two centenes.'
The boatswain, who was standing nearby supervising some manoeuvre or other, heard his reply and, with the bluntness of the weatherworn sailor, without even turning round and keeping his cigarette firmly clamped between his lips, he said:
'Four monedas and don't be such a fool!'
The negro seemed uncertain. He leaned over the starboard rail and gazed for a moment into the depths of the sea in which the stars trembled dully. Fantastic, silvery fish swam back and forth, leaving phosphorescent sparks in their wake, and then vanished in amongst the shimmering moonlight. In the shadow cast on the blue waves by the side of the ship lay the shapeless mass of a shoal of sharks. Thoughtful, the sailor moved away from the side. He looked back once or twice at the sleeping waves, as if affected by the groans they hurled into the silence of the night. He stubbed out his cigarette with his fingers and went over to La Niña Chole.
'What do you think to 4 centenes, mistress?'
With the patrician disdain that rich creoles feel for negros, La Niña Chole turned her head toward him - the head of a beautiful Indian queen - and said softly, in such a way that the words seemed to hang heavy with tedium upon her lips:
'Four centenes it shall be...if you can do it.'
The negro smiled the smile of a greedy, sensual ogre. He immediately removed his shirt, unsheathed the knife he wore at his waist, gripped it between his teeth like a Newfoundland dog and clambered up on to the gunwale. His bare torso, like polished ebony, was still glistening with water. The great negro leaned over, staring into the deep. Then, when the sharks surfaced, I saw him rise up on the moonlit rail, like some dark, mythological figure, and then, with arms outstretched, he dived headfirst into the sea. Everyone on deck, crew and passengers alike, rushed to the gunwale. The sharks disappeared in search of the negro and all eyes were fixed on the swirling waters; the waves were almost immediately tinged with red and, in the midst of hurrahs from the sailors and loud applause from the large, red, plebeian hands of the merchants, the broad, curly head of the sailor resurfaced. He was swimming with one arm, whilst the other arm gripped a shark by the throat in which his knife was still embedded. There was a rush to help lift the negro clear of the water. They threw down ropes that had been kept in readiness, but when he was already half out of the water, a horrible scream rent the air, and we saw him fling wide his arms and disappear, dragged down by the sharks. I was still in a state of shock when I heard a voice behind me say:
'Would you mind making room for me, sir?'
At the same time, someone touched me lightly on the shoulder. I turned and found myself face to face with La Niña Chole. As always, a vague smile played upon her lips and she was rapidly opening and closing one of her hands in the palm of which I saw the gleam of several gold coins. Having begged me earnestly and mysteriously to make room for her, she leaned over the gunwale and threw the coins as far out into the sea as she could. Then she turned gracefully round and looked at me:
'He certainly earned it!'
My face must have been deathly pale, but as soon as she fixed her lovely eyes on me and smiled, my senses got the better of me and my still tremulous lips repaid that queenly smile with the smile of the slave who approves of everything his master does. The creole woman's cruelty both horrified and attracted me. She had never seemed more alluring and more beautiful. Soft perfumes rose up from the dark, mysterious sea. The white moon lent them a strange voluptuousness. The tragic death of the black colossus, the dumb horror still evident on everyone's faces, a violin playing plaintively in the lounge, everything about that night, beneath that moon, awoke in me a depraved and subtly sensual pleasure.
La Niña Chole walked away with a rhythmic, undulating gait reminiscent of a tiger and, as she disappeared, a cruel doubt gnawed at my heart. Until then I had not noticed that, beside me, stood a handsome, blond young man whom I remembered having seen when I disembarked on the beach in Tuxtlan. Had he been the intended recipient of the smile on those lips, which seemed to contain the enigmatic secret of some ancient cult, licentious, cruel, diabolical?