The Orchids of Lethe’, M. Bennardo

Illustrations © 2016 Christina Cartwright

 [ Garden, © 2016 Christina Cartwright ] They come for me at my mother’s house.

It’s Rosa Marquez and a man in an expensive white suit, all led by the boy Julio. I’m in Mama’s garden, in my chair in the green shade of the sycamore. Julio waves to me from the other side of the garden gate, and I motion silently to him. He presses the latch above the old iron lock, smiling shyly as he leads the others inside.

I breathe deep, filling my lungs with the heavy scent of the magnolia blooms, the beetles crawling in and out among the pale peach petals. A hummingbird flashes amid the bright orange trumpets of a creeping vine. And I wonder if this is the last time I shall see and smell and be among them like this.

As Julio and the others cross the garden towards me, the lizards flatten themselves nervously against the adobe walls. Ramon, in the village, says there are a dozen different species of lizard, and that once I had known how to tell each of them apart. Now, they all look the same to me. I can’t remember the differences, and I can’t remember the names.

Mama just calls them los pequeños, the little ones. That’s enough for me.

“Welcome,” I say. I stand up, looking from Rosa to the man in the expensive suit. I know why they’ve come. Long ago, they told me what to expect. Long ago, they told me who I was. “I’m sorry I don’t have enough chairs.”

Rosa translates into English, and the man shrugs.

“We’re not here to sit,” says Rosa. As always, she seems impossibly young—but then, I’ve forgotten how old I am. Thirty-five? Forty? Probably older than I think, or so it seems every time someone tells me. Mama knows the number, of course, but it would only upset her to ask.

“I’m looking for someone on Señor Castle’s behalf,” continues Rosa. That’s the man in the suit, it seems. Castle. “A man whom he wants to find. He followed him as far as the village, where he was seen to buy a canoe and set off east.” Rosa makes a motion with her hand, strangely formal, like somebody giving a speech. “He must be somewhere in the swamp now. Lost.”

“Why come to me?” I reach out and grip Rosa’s left forearm in my hand, turning it over so I can see the tattoo of her name stenciled there. Rosa Marquez, Santa Matrona, Florida. Her tattoo is much nicer than mine—more artistic, carefully drawn, free from scars. Not scratched and inked in haste. Planned. “That’s an old tattoo. Two, three years. You’ve been wanting my job for a long time now, eh? Aren’t you ready yet?”

She pulls back her arm, twisting to break my grip. The man in the suit looks on in bewilderment, not understanding. “It’s okay,” Rosa says to him in English. “It’s cool.” Then she turns back to me, her dark eyes furious. “Don’t waste my time. If you’re too afraid, I’ll do it instead.”

I shake my head. I know why they’ve come. I know it in the fog and darkness of my own mind. I know it in the spaces of all the things I’ve forgotten. There is already one like me. So long as I can remember how to put my paddle in water, why should there be another? That is what they are thinking.

I suppose I should say no. If I think of myself or of Mama, I suppose I should send them away again with a sad shake of my head. But then what? I’m tired of sitting all day in someone else’s garden, watching the lizards and the hummingbirds. How long has it been since I last worked? I can’t remember—the days all run together. There never seems any point to counting them.

I pick up my straw hat from the garden table and put it on. I look right at the man, Castle. I don’t remember much English anymore, but sometimes the words come to me just when I need them.

I’ll do it,” I say.

That should be it—the clean little ending of my desultory existence. But, like a clumsy transition in a bad farce, there is more to the scene. For it’s that moment when Mama chooses to come out of the house, carrying a bundle of wet sheets, hand-washed in the tub and ready for the clothesline. Seeing the others, she drops the wet sheets on the ground, her mouth opening in a short scream. The lizards on the walls scatter for the bushes.

“Esteban, no.” My mother is crying, her voice ragged as she leans against the wall for support, her hands over her heart. “Do you want to kill me?”


“Every time,” she says, tears in her eyes, “you come back less my son.”

I shake my head. She doesn’t know—I haven’t told her. But I haven’t been her son for as long as I can remember. Not since my last trip into the swamp at least, and maybe longer. “I’m sorry, Mama,” I say. “But a man must do something. And this is what I do.”

The commonplace words turn to clay in my mouth, and I am ashamed when Mama throws up her hands and turns muttering back into the house. She’ll pray there the rest of the day, I know. She’ll pray until I’ve forgotten every last thing about her.

Ramon makes up the contract for me. So much writing would make my head swim even if I could remember the right words and legal niceties. Instead, I sit and look at the photo of the man that Castle wants to find. I haven’t asked his name, and I won’t. Names are no good in the swamp.

The man in the photo is also wearing an expensive suit, or at least an expensive jacket. Underneath, there’s a gold chain against his shirt. A beautiful woman is on his arm.

“Who is the woman?” I ask.

Rosa just shakes her head, so I point the photo at Castle and tap my finger on the woman. “Who is she?” I speak slowly, so he can hear the Spanish words and the question in my voice.

Castle says an English word, and Rosa translates. The woman is Castle’s wife.

I nod and think a moment longer. “Finding this man won’t get him his wife back,” I say. Rosa doesn’t translate, so I push her shoulder. “Tell him.”

When he answers, she shrugs. “He says he already has his wife back.”

This is not seeking for the lost, then. This is revenge.

I don’t say anything, but I’m thinking as quickly as I can. I don’t think this is the usual way. To go into the swamp intentionally is serious enough, and revenge seems such a petty motive. I try to catch Castle’s eyes, but he turns them away. I cannot see how black they burn. I cannot see if this is real to him, or a game.

Long ago, Mama told me about the first time I went into the swamp. My father had been paddling along the canal to another village, and a sudden storm had blown through. The water rose, the dykes burst. His canoe was swept by the stormwater deep among the cypresses and orchids.

I was young then, Mama said, not much older than twenty. I begged Ramon until he carved the tattoos on my forearms, hastily scratched with the needle from my mother’s sewing machine. Esteban Yaha, Santa Matrona, Florida on the left arm, and Home is west on the right arm. They were my idea, those tattoos. They were why she let me go, that first time. That is the story she tells me anyway.

That was the kind of thing I thought I was for. To find lost relatives and straying children. To bring back those who have wandered accidentally into the swamp. Those who are loved and missed.

Revenge, on the other hand, doesn’t sit easy. Can I even bring back a man who wanted to lose himself? I wonder if I have ever tried before.

But there is Rosa, who brought Castle to me. And there is Ramon, making out the contract. Somehow, it must sit easy enough with them. Perhaps all the other times it wasn’t really like the time with my father. Perhaps the other times it was like this. Mama only told me about the first time, so I don’t know about the others.

Perhaps it is always revenge. Even though the man I bring back won’t be the same as the one who sinned. It doesn’t make sense, not really—but then, the lost wouldn’t be the same either. Perhaps none of it makes sense. Perhaps none of it matters. But still—here we are. And here I am.

“Does he speak Spanish?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Rosa. “I think so.” She nods at Castle. “He thinks so, I mean.”

“What will he do when he finds this man?” I ask. Rosa looks away. Julio makes a gun with his fingers and pantomimes shooting. I look back to the others. “Is that true?”

Rosa glares at me, her eyes flashing. “I said I would do it if you didn’t want to.” But her voice is not defiant or contemptuous. Her voice is round and sad.

Would it be better if the man wasn’t to die? Would it be better if he were only to get his hand slapped? Death is at least serious. And I had wanted this man to be serious.

So I think about my mother on her knees. I think about my father lost in the swamp—out there, still lost to this day, for I never did bring him back. I think about the tattoos on Rosa’s arms, inked against the day when I can no longer do this job and she will do it in my place. Then I see Ramon and Castle, the signed and countersigned contracts folded into envelopes, shaking hands with each other solemnly. I see another envelope full of money. I see this other man in the photo with Castle’s wife.

“I’ll do it,” I say again. I don’t want to anymore, but neither will I let Rosa do it instead. Not for something like this. Not for money and revenge and murder.

“Ready now?” asks Ramon.

“Yes,” I say. “But first…”

Time slows as I take the notebook from my pocket. I feel as though I am moving like an old man, slow and methodical. I feel as though everyone else wants me to get on with it. But they will begrudge me this at least. They will let me have this moment.

My heart thumps heavily as I open the creased green cover of the notebook and page through it carefully, turning leaf after leaf of my own writing. It’s the book I always write in before I go into the swamp, the book of my life. All that is left of my memories.

The notebook is divided into five sections, for five trips that I’ve completed. The first section is the longest and most detailed, pages and pages of close writing made in a firm and sure hand. A young hand. So many words, so much writing—I have difficulty even reading those pages now. They make me uneasy. I turn quickly past them.

The writing in the second section is almost as firm, but it doesn’t go on nearly as long. It gets shorter and weaker still in the third, fourth, and fifth sections. Then, with quivering fingers, I turn over to a new blank page and take out my pencil. The sixth section.

I suck on the end of the pencil as I try to think what to write. What to save? What to write down? I look around again—the little village, the people around me. All of this will still be here when I return. Where are my loose ends? I don’t even owe money to anybody. I don’t have any appointments to keep.

Then I see the photograph of the man that Castle wants to find. The man that Castle wants to kill. I look from the woman to the man in the photograph, then up at Castle. I know then that the lie would be the easiest thing to write. You didn’t know what would happen.

But how could I make myself believe it? Day after day, with nothing to do but think alone in that garden chair under the sycamore tree. Day after day, with nothing else to think about. The truth would be clear sooner or later, and I would know both that I had been a willing accessory to murder and that I lied to myself.

So instead I write a different sentence in the notebook, quickly, my hand shaking. One sentence only. That’s all I have to say to the future man who comes back out of the swamp in my body, hauling a prisoner along for his execution.

Then I give the notebook and my key to Mama’s garden gate to Ramon. He’ll hold them for me until I return.

Finally, I flip over the photo and I write Bring him back on the back of it. I put the pencil and the photograph in a plastic Ziplock baggie and stuff it in my pocket.

“Okay,” I say. “Let’s go.”

There’s a problem at the canoe. After a few minutes, I realize that Castle wants to come too. He wants to be there when I find the man, somewhere in the swamp so he can pull his gun out of his waistband right then and there. He still doesn’t understand—doesn’t understand why I am needed and what my job is. While the others talk, I walk to a nearby cypress tree and pluck an orchid clinging to one of the branches.

Castle looks up as I approach. I can see his eyes now, black and bright, the shadow of death lurking behind them.

“Breathe,” I say. I crush the orchid in my hand and hold it up to Castle’s nose. I pantomime breathing in. Castle breathes.

His eyes flare open as the pollen enters his nose and he looks around dazed, bewildered. “What happened?” he asks. “What was that?” He talks in English, but I know exactly what he says. I know exactly what he is feeling—the momentary break, the popping of his memory, the wash of nothing across his mind like the tide smoothing the beach.

For a moment I wish I could feed him enough of the pollen to blot out everything, to make him forget his wife and his anger and this other man. I wish I could blot out the signatures on the contracts, and instead go back to Mama’s garden. But it would take a thousand flowers to do that, and there aren’t a thousand flowers here.

In the swamp, yes. A thousand flowers and more. A thousand million. But not here.

The flower,” I say in English. Then I tap my forehead. “Makes you forget.” I motion out to the swamp. “Flowers everywhere. Wind blowsyou forget everything.” I wipe my hand across my brow, then clap my hands together, cleaning them of crushed petals and pollen. “Everything gone.”

Castle looks at me, nodding, a quiet look in his eyes. Rosa and Ramon are explaining again, in better English, but I can tell that Castle already understands. He asks me something, but I don’t know the words. Probably he wants to know how I will remember to find my way back. How I will remember to find the man at all.

But I am already kneeling in the canoe, checking the bags of beef jerky and dried apricots, the plastic gallon jugs of clean drinking water. Already, I am shoving off with my hand, trailing my paddle in the water. The sun reflects off the rippling surface and makes patterns on the tattoos on my forearms. The left one with my name and village, the right one with the direction home.

They have always guided me right, five times before this. I kiss the San Cristóbal medallion hanging around my neck. God willing, they will guide me right again.

I pin the plastic baggie with the photograph to the canoe’s frame in front of my knees. The sun is hot, and the black waters of the swamp sparkle with sharp reflections on a million tiny waves.

Three miles in now, I’m paddling through an open space, a shallow space. Tips of green grass break through the water’s surface and then bend over lazily. On either side of this avenue, great cypresses rise, knobbed knees breaking the water, upper branches dotted with resting cormorants. The birds look prehistoric, their wings spread crookedly to dry in the air. Now and then, one dives from its perch and skims the water clumsily before taking off for better fishing grounds.

There’s no wind yet, so I can still remember Castle and Rosa and Ramon and Mama. If I want to, for now. But if I look closely at the black surface of the tannic water, I can already see tiny specks of yellow dust, whirling in eddies as my paddle dips down—first on one side of the canoe, and then on the other.

The pollen is everywhere, on everything. The orchids are like a weed here, almost as bad as the spanish moss. But more beautiful. More treacherous.

Ahead, in the shadow of a cypress, something big and black slips into the water from the bank. A powerful kick of its scaly tail sends it cruising into deeper water until nothing is visible except the tip of its nose and the dark green bump above its eye. It could be a waterlogged branch, but it’s not.

I grin over the water, watching the hidden thing as my canoe glides on. “Ahoy, pequeño,” I whisper. He’s far away, that alligator. He will not bother me. He’s waiting for some stupid cormorant to paddle across his nose. “Good luck with the hunting.”

Then I turn my face back down the long open avenue, and a cold breeze fans my brow. As the sun sinks lower, the wind rises higher.

I don’t forget everything in the swamp. No one does. But I forget a lot, and the longer I stay the more I forget.

What I don’t forget is how to survive. My muscles remember how to move and steer the canoe. Some untouched part of my brain remembers the danger posed by alligators and how to spot them even when submerged. I remember to drink from my water jugs rather than from the swamp, and to cook the fish I catch rather than tearing into them raw.

I don’t forget that I’m a human. I don’t forget the things that have seen me through the swamp five times before, the legacy of ten thousand years of human survival here. But as for everything else—it melts away. It all melts away, and I have nothing beyond what is tattooed on my arms.

Yet somehow it is enough for now. In the swamp, new memories are wiped clean almost as soon as they are formed. There is space for a thought, for two, for three—then, like in a dream, the chain breaks and it all falls away.

Each time I lift my paddle, I wonder again who Esteban Yaha is. What is his home like, back in the west? Who loves him? Who waits for him? Then I forget the questions as soon as I drop my arm.

There will be time enough to find the answers once I have done what I have come to do. The photo, the man, the single command. Bring him back, says the writing on the back.

I will. It’s why I have come.

Suddenly, out of the swamp, an island looms. The mist parts and I glide through a floating green carpet of lilies, leaving a trail of open water in my wake.

How long have I been paddling? How did I get here? The questions disappear almost as soon as they form.

Ahead, trees cluster thickly together, their wide trunks planted not in water but on piles of sand, branches overhead festooned with the cool tumbling curls of spanish moss, but plucked clear of orchids. Sawgrass fills in the empty spaces, and a steep sandy beach protrudes from the swamp.

As I push through the lilies, I see another trail parallel with mine—another path of clear black water through the green, where another boat has passed before mine. Then I see a canoe lying turned over on the beach. Then the tip of my canoe strikes heavily against the sandy bank and climbs a few inches up. Then someone is helping to drag me ashore, and someone is helping me stand. I snatch the photo from the canoe and stuff it in my pocket.

“Welcome,” says a voice.

“Are you surprised?” asks another.

I look around, the firm ground under my feet. Something is fading from behind me, and something is opening in front. The two voices belong to a man and a woman. I seem to be expecting them to vanish, but they don’t. Instead, they grow more and more solid, more and more real. They are full of a million little details, and it hurts my head to look at them.

“No,” I say. “I’m not surprised.”

The man and the woman laugh and take me by the arms.

There’s a village on the island, footpaths winding between old adobe houses, most of them crumbling, poorly built from too-sandy clay. A small grove of orange trees sits between the village clearing and a dark patch of hot jungle. The air grows heavy and dead there, at the back of the grove, great flies buzzing horribly and the stink of living and dying things rising up out of the tangle of trees and ferns.

Elsewhere, there are goats, climbing unconcerned through the cypress knees that crowd the beach. There’s a church too, on a dry prominence with a field of maize growing knee-high in a field behind it. The church itself is old with a cracked roof, shafts of sunlight falling across the chancel and nave, creepers climbing the pillars, stains showing where old wooden stations and apostles rotted off the sandstone walls.

Here and there, I see others. Other people, carrying wood or sacks, talking and laughing as they walk about the village. The man and woman with me point to them one at a time. “There’s Orange. There’s Orchid. That’s Lizard.”

I nod, numb and half overcome. The hand of the man bites into my arm as he leads me, and it feels good. Cypress. The woman is Bell. Earlier, the man and woman had told me their names. Even when I look away, I still remember them.

“We must find a name for you, as well,” says the man. Somehow, I know the answer is to show my right arm to him. He studies the writing on my tattoo carefully. After a moment, he says, “That means ‘wolf’.” He points to the word “yaha” on my arm.

“Does it?” I ask. The idea does not surprise me. Why shouldn’t it mean wolf? Why shouldn’t this man know better even than I do? “In what language?”

The man shrugs. “I forget the name.” Then he closes his eyes and breathes deep. Suddenly, he is reciting something that sounds like a poem. Like something I heard long ago.

“Creek,” I say. I don’t know why. But the man smiles and nods.

“Yes,” he says, slowly. “I think that was the name.”

By evening, my mind is mostly settled. I sit happily in the center of the village with the others, watching the bonfire grow hotter and higher.

The people laugh and talk, and sing sometimes in short scraps of almost-familiar song. They ladle crushed soaked maize into pots of boiling water, and I suddenly recognize the sour smell of sofkee—a tremor running through my body as some old memory flares up inside me like a struck match and then sputters away again without lighting any bigger fire…

Later, when the sofkee is served, we share boiled swamp cabbage and roasted birds as well. The plucked wings are long and delicate, the bones easily broken. As I eat, Bell begins telling me a story about cranes, and it’s a long while before I realize these cranes are the ones that we are eating.

She leans close, frizzled yellow hair falling on either side of her tanned face, her skin cracked with laugh lines and her teeth grey and soft-looking. But she has a shine about her, a radiance that pours out of her. As she talks, I notice Cypress watching contentedly nearby, stretched out with his feet pointed at the fire, his belly round under dark skin and a tattered shirt, grease glistening in the patches of black and white hair on his cheeks.

I barely follow the story Bell is telling. She tells me that the cranes came three or four days before in a great flock, settling onto a stand of water-bound cypresses, squabbling and bickering over their roosting order in the branches. They stayed for the night, as other flocks of birds often did, but then something happened. Morning came, and they didn’t fly away. Another night and another day passed. Somehow, through some special potency of the orchids, the birds had forgotten to leave.

It was on the third day when some of the villagers went out in canoes and rafts. By then, the birds had long forgotten all fear of humans, and soon Bell and the others were plucking cranes off the low branches of the cypresses and wringing their necks. It was on the way back from this expedition, their boats heaped with this miraculous bounty, the mere edges of their memories beginning to evaporate under the influence of the pollen, that they encountered a wanderer—a stranger lost in the swamp.

“We named him Crane.” Bell grins, pointing around the circle that crowds the fire. I see a thin young man leaning back on a fallen log—one of the youngest people in the village it seems, a gold chain around his neck.

I nod, not really understanding, but happy to listen to the flow of Bell’s words. Happy to be following the flow of anything, of cause and effect, of the progression of time—happy even to notice the darkening of the sky, the cooling of the night, and the rising of the moon.

It is only later, as the fire is dying, that I think about the gold chain again. Then I remember the photo I found in my pocket, and I take it out. The chain is the same, and the man is the same. As far as I can tell in the red glow of fading embers, I have been carrying a photo of the man that they call Crane.

I flip the photo over, and I read what it says on the back.

That night, I piece it together. It happens almost against my own will, as if part of my mind is fighting to not understand. But as I lie on the floor in Bell and Cypress’s house, my head and body pillowed on a springy mattress of new-cut palm leaves, it all falls into place too easily.

My arrival, and Crane’s arrival the day before me. He had been lost, dehydrated, almost delirious, Bell had said. He had wept and clung to the villagers. While I had come confidently and calmly, provisioned with food and water, as if prepared for a long journey.

And the photo. The photo of Crane, and the words written on the other side. The words, too, written on my arms. My identity and my home, as if I had known that I would lose my way in the swamp. As if I knew I would forget, as if I knew I would need a map back to where I belong.

By morning, I understand it all—or enough. It doesn’t help me sleep.

I spend the next day clearing out a house of my own. The village is larger than the villagers need, and the jungle has intruded on its edges. There are several old unused houses, wreathed in generations of creepers, dead leaves and twigs caked into dried mud on the floor.

The roof has fallen in partly on the house I have chosen, but I patch it well enough with palm fronds. Then I scrub and scrape at the floor, washing out rivers of mud with black swamp water, then rinsing it all down again with clear water from the spring on the hill behind the church. I’m not sure why I do any of it. I shouldn’t be planning to stay. I should be convincing Crane to leave with me—to go back west, to whatever we left behind there.

Were we friends, I wonder, or strangers?

Friends, surely. The greatest of friends. Who else would come looking for another in this treacherous swamp? Who else would throw away his memories to bring another back?

I pull down a mat of dead creepers from the wall of my house, the muscles in my arms flexing, my tattoos grimy with dirt and sweat. I don’t know why, but whenever I see those tattoos now there is sadness on my shoulders, coldness in my heart.

Perhaps there is a home for me already, somewhere else. Perhaps someone is there now, missing me.

A lizard scurries out from underneath the dead creepers and pauses in the open sunlight, as if turned suddenly to a statue and unable to move from his exposed location. “What is the matter with me, pequeño?” I ask.

Even the word is strange. It’s not the right word, I know, but it tugs at my heart, weakly, like the echo of something. Yesterday, it would have tugged more. Tomorrow, it will tug less. I know the way of these things well enough already.

Pet names, scraps of songs, the memory of words in forgotten languages—they are all always bubbling up among the villagers. Unconnected, free-floating half-memories, unpredictable and insubstantial. They excite curiosity, like artifacts unearthed in an archaeological dig, the tantalizing remnants of some vanished civilization. But scraps only. Slender shadows.

There was a past once, they say. But as to what it was like—they are silent.

So why, I wonder, should the photo in my pocket be any different? Why should it be any more convincing to Crane than any of these other remnants? It’s an artifact, a remnant—not a story. He will look at it and shrug. She’s beautiful, he might say, but who is she?

I’m supposed to bring him back somehow, but I have nothing to tell him to make him want to go. I throw some of the palm fronds onto the roof, and pull them into place. I hear Cypress and Bell walking up the path to my house, more fresh-cut fronds heaped in their arms, laughing and talking and joking with me. Cypress calls me Wolf, and Bell smiles shyly as she looks at us.

But all the while, my tattoos stand out on my arms. All the while, a shadow is over my heart.

I wake in the middle of the night. I’ve been dreaming of—something. I’m not sure what. Some story, some part of the past. Crane and the woman in the photo with him. And me.

Why did I come into the swamp to bring Crane back? Why did I sacrifice my own memories to the task? Surely not on my own behalf—was our friendship truly that great? Or was it rather for her? Surely I did it out of my love for their love. Her love.

I reach into my pocket and take out the photo. It’s hard to see, even in the moonlight that pours through the window. Crane looks different now, not at all like how I saw him in my dream. The woman too. But I have my story now, and my motive.

I flip the photo over and take out my pencil. Underneath where it says Bring him back I write another line. It says She misses us both.

I stop and stare at the words I have written. Somehow, it seems true, even though I know it is a lie. But one thing I know certainly: it will work.

Then I put the photo away and lie down to sleep again. I try to will the guilty feeling in my breast away. It could be the truth, I tell myself. It must be the truth.

I sigh in the darkness. Tomorrow I will decide whether to show the picture to Crane or throw it away.

I wake in the morning to a still-dark sky, but this one rolling with black clouds. I shiver as the temperature drops. The wind blows, and water birds fly ahead of it—cormorants and cranes and pelicans, swept before the gale, up and out, away from the coming storm. An eagle clutches the top of a cypress, defiant and hard.

The church bell rings, clanging back and forth on its ancient fulcrum, the clapper ringing dully with every collision. At first I think it’s blowing free in the wind, clanging uncontrollably. But soon I realize that someone is ringing it, heaving on the rope, calling everyone in the village to the relative security of the church.

Even there, the wind tears through the old walls. There is no hope of keeping a fire lit. We can barely keep dry. We stay to the corners, huddling under piled palm fronds, as thunder booms and wind roars around us. As the water pours in cataracts down the cracked tile channel of the nave.

Cypress and Bell are there, and I squat next to them as a pool of dark and cold water starts to collect at our feet. Lightning flashes illuminate our corner through the broken windows of the church. And in those sudden flashes, I see our faces all reflected back in the water. How alike Cypress is to me, I suddenly think. How similar our eyes and nose and jaw—

That is the last thing I think about before I realize there is pollen in the air. Suddenly I know that everything is about to slip away, and I want to hold tight to it all. Even though my friendships are all new friendships, even though I have no long history behind me. I am not leaving anything that I worked a long time to build, but still I want to fight for it.

I watch Cypress and Bell cling to each other for perhaps the last time. Their eyes fighting to stay bright, fighting to keep from clouding over. They know, as I do, that they will both still be here in the morning. But separate, no longer together, their shared foundation washed away in the flood.

Then a long night becomes a million moments. A million moments of thunder rolling into the roar of wind and rain. A million moments of instinctive survival as my ego is battered back into a void…

When morning comes, I find the tattoos on my arms and the photo in my pocket. I find too the man in the photo, but not the woman. Together, we flip the photo over.

Bring him back, it says. She misses us both.

It is like a lance through both of our hearts, pinning us fast together. What is this church to us? These ruined houses full of mud and leaves? Who are these people and why are we with them?

Near the water, we find a canoe. There is room for two inside it.

 [ Swamps, © 2016 Christina Cartwright ] We drift through the swamp, the other man and I. Carefully, deliberately, I paddle west. I forget, I awaken. I forget, I awaken. I discover the world anew. And I paddle west because that’s what the tattoo on my arm tells me to do. Perhaps somewhere in that direction there is an end to all of this—all of this forgetting and waking, this endless moment of no past and no future.

I only notice my mind is clearing when I wonder how long I have been paddling. I was born this way, it seems. Born in motion, traveling toward an unknown destination.

But my thoughts hold together. Two, three, four thoughts in a row. I don’t forget, not as much. As we go west, I stay awake for longer and longer.

I don’t talk to the other man and he doesn’t talk to me. What can we say? We have no shared history to reminisce about, no separate histories to compare. Neither of us knows the answer to any question we might ask.

My arms ache, and so I rest a while. There is fresh water in the canoe, and so I drink it. The cypresses stand around us, spanish moss blowing fitfully in the wind. Turtles cluster on half-submerged logs, baking in the hot afternoon sun. A blue heron wades out into the water, hip deep, its great eye trained downward.

“I found this,” I say. It’s the photo of the other man with a woman. He takes it from my hand and looks at it, then flips it over.

“Is that me?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say. “That’s you.”

I paddle on, moving west again. Whatever has brought us here is not important. All that matters is that we keep going. Keep going until we reach the end. By the time we do—by the time we see a man and a boy on the shore up ahead—I’m exhausted and almost ready to fall asleep sitting up.

“I’m Ramon,” says the man as he pulls me ashore. “And this is Julio.” The man claps me on the back and grins. I stumble into his arms, my legs like water. “Welcome home, Esteban. Good job, my friend.”

Julio is still there when I wake. Ramon and the other man are gone. They left in a car, says Julio, hours earlier, while I slept heavily. They were headed south, perhaps to a place that Julio calls Miami.

“Ramon says you can drink anything you want,” adds the boy with a grin.

I smile grimly. I have a bad headache. Ramon has rum in his kitchen. After that, I try water, then more water, then Coca-Cola. My brain seems to set, like liquid turning to gelatin. It’s solid now, but it’s as smooth and blank as gelatin too. What do I know now? What do I know?

Julio tells me that this is Santa Matrona, the same name as on my tattoo. But somehow I wonder if that is really true. Somehow I can’t help but think I have come back to the wrong place.

Julio gives me a notebook and a key that Ramon had been holding for me. I open the book, but my headache returns at the first glimpse of the pages full of writing. I decide to look at it later, or maybe find someone to read it to me. But the key is cool and heavy. It has a string I can slip around my neck, alongside the San Cristóbal medallion.

I hold the key up. “What door is this for?”

I go to my mother’s house, carefully following the directions that Julio gave me. I walk slowly down a shaded lane of basswood trees, the eager wind pushing leaves and garbage up the lane behind me, rattling the branches over my head, sending iridescent beetles careening as they try to fly from leaf to leaf.

Then I turn a corner and the stillness is suddenly oppressive, the wind gone and the air hot, the sweet odor of the basswood flowers now suffocating and heavy. Pink stucco walls line either side of the street, covered by creepers and broken by old iron gates. A radio blares from a garden nearby, a preacher hundreds of miles away exhorting the faithful through a thin invisible thread. I see the radio suddenly in my mind, a small transistor radio. So easy to turn the dial and cut the power. So easy to snap that thread and send the preacher away.

But no, he drones on, always talking, always finding a new word to put after the last one. Soon, the radio grows faint again. As the sound fades, I count one, two, three, four houses from the corner, and I take out the key from around my neck.

But immediately I see that it will never fit. The garden gate is old, but the lock is new, shiny and freshly oiled. The key in my hand is old and black, its blocky teeth projecting from a thick cylinder. They are from two different worlds—one medieval and one modern.

I stand for a moment staring through the gate into the garden. I can see a chair set up under a sycamore tree, with magnolias and trumpet creepers, and a small house beyond. It looks inviting, but nobody comes to let me in.

“Hello?” I call. Something rustles in the ivy on the garden wall. A lizard or a snake, most likely. “Is anybody there?”

Nobody answers. Perhaps I have the directions wrong. Perhaps something has changed. I take out the notebook that Julio gave me and I lean against the wall, slowly turning the pages with heavy hands. Somehow I think the answer will be in there, and I turn past the early pages, past the middle, on and on without reading the masses of writing. I’m looking for the last page. When I find it, I realize that it is old. It’s the fifth section, months old or years old, the pencil marks faded and smudged. And the next page beyond, where the sixth section should begin, has been ripped out, only a ragged edge remaining to show where it had been.

Perhaps I wrote nothing before this last trip into the swamp. Perhaps I wrote something and ripped it out again.

I start back toward town. Perhaps, perhaps. Or perhaps somebody else ripped it out. Perhaps Ramon. I turn the corner into the windy basswood alley again and shield my eyes and face. I’m walking face first into the wind now, leaves sticking to my legs and grit making my eyes water.

The key won’t fit. The last page is missing. But why should I be suspicious of Ramon? Why should I be suspicious of anybody? As I walk, my whole body starts to tremble. Somebody must know the answers.

I see Julio first, on the street that leads to Ramon’s place. I’ve been wandering back that way for lack of anywhere else to go.

Julio, yes. The boy. He has tried to help me. Hasn’t he?

I’m not sure, but I don’t like the sour feeling I have. It’s a kind of loneliness, a kind of emptiness. I feel like I shouldn’t trust anybody, but there is nothing else for me to do. If I don’t trust anybody, I will only be more alone.

“Did you find it?” asks Julio. “Do you need me to take you?”

“Yes,” I say. Then: “I don’t know. Not yet. Wait.” I try to think what I want. I don’t want Julio. I don’t want Ramon. I think of the other man—the other one who came out of the swamp with me. I don’t know his name. I don’t know who he is. But there was the photo. A photo of him and a woman. Who is the woman?

Then: who was she to him? To me? To us? Why did Ramon take only the other man and leave me here?

“Do you know where she is?” I finally ask. “Can you take me to her?”

“Who?” asks Julio. “You mean your mother?”

“No, not Mama. I don’t know her name. The—the other woman.”

“Not Rosa?” There is doubt in the boy’s eyes.

“Yes,” I say, agreeing because that doubt looks like a clue. “Take me to Rosa.”

Julio hesitates. Perhaps there is some reason that I shouldn’t see her. But what could any reason matter to me, with my mind almost a perfect blank? What could it even matter to her anymore? She misses us both. Besides, she is the only other one here that I know anything about. She is the only one who can tell me anything at all.

“Please,” I say. “It’s very important. Can you help me?”

“Okay,” says Julio. “Okay.”

But Rosa is not the woman from the photo. She is too young, too skinny. She knows Julio when he pushes open her door, and she knows me too. I can tell from how white her face gets. How she screams. Suddenly she is throwing her open suitcase at me and I am wading through shirts and sandals and summer dresses, all of them seeming to float in the air before me. She retreats into her house, trying to run away.

“It’s not my fault,” she says. “It’s not my fault! I didn’t know, I swear to you, Esteban!”

I don’t know what she means, but as she tries to slam a bathroom door, I see that she has tattoos like mine. I look down involuntarily at my own arms, muscles tense under my skin as I struggle to hold the door open against the weight of her body, and then I look at her arms again. She falls back and her shoulder hits the bathtub. She cries out. Then she curls up on the floor, her arms folded sullenly, her legs drawn up to her chest.

“I swear I didn’t know,” she says. “I didn’t know he’d just leave! He was supposed to wait for me—for us.” She sobs suddenly, her face pale and ashen. “I stayed until Julio told me you woke up. That you were okay. That was all I was waiting for. I couldn’t leave until you woke up…”

“Wait,” I say. I push the bathroom door open and sit down on the toilet. I don’t understand any of this. I wanted to know about the key that didn’t fit and the page that was ripped out of my book, but suddenly there is so much more that I don’t understand.

“Wait,” I say again. “Start from the beginning. Please tell me everything.”

My arms and shoulders ache, and my knees are sore from kneeling. But as I assume the familiar place in my old canoe, I welcome the pain. It’s like an echo, a ghost from my past. The protests of my body are a reminder of things I have done that I cannot now remember.

This is not the first time I have kneeled here. This is not the first time I have taken this paddle in my hands. Each ache and blister tells me that. All I have done, all I have been—it is all written somewhere in the knots of my muscles and the cords of my ligaments and the burned brown leather of my skin.

It’s all still there, even if it has been wiped from my memory. It’s all there, even if it has been torn from my book.

The old tattoos are there too, faded and inartistic as they are. I could not bring myself to scratch them out, no more than I could bring myself to cut off my own nose. The left arm still reads Esteban Yaha, Santa Matrona, Florida. And the right arm reads Home is west.

But now there is more. There, scratched underneath in fresh cuts filled with new ink, still raw and pink around the edges, my right arm says Don’t go back.

I still don’t know why my mother changed the lock on her gate, or if she even lives in that house anymore. I still don’t know if Ramon really did rip out a page from my book, or what that page may have said. I don’t even know why I ever went into the swamp at all.

Maybe I didn’t know what it would mean. Maybe I had no choice. Maybe they threatened me or my mother. Maybe I wanted the money. Maybe I hated that other man too. Without knowing the truth, without being able to trust anybody to tell me what happened, I can make up any comforting lie that I want. Or I can heap enough blame on my own head to justify my blackest moods.

Ramon is gone, along with whatever money there was or would be. That was what Rosa was sorry about. When Ramon left by himself for Miami, she knew he was never coming back. It must have been a lot of money he had coming. Enough for a life.

The blade of my paddle dips into the water and my canoe surges forward. The sun is setting. It’s dark and warm, the canal full of the songs of frogs. From behind a screen of trees, a night heron stirs at its roost.

As I glide along, my new life unfolding in my brain like the first seedling on a barren volcanic island, I find myself trembling. In the first sting of Ramon’s betrayal, I had carved the new tattoo into my arm, intending to lose myself in the swamp again. Don’t go back.

But then I thought: What is Ramon to me? Who am I to him? Every moment now in my new life is a moment without Ramon. He is not important anymore, and I’ll never see him again. So I let him drift by, like a leaf in the canal. I let his betrayal float far behind me and disappear.

The man in this body was once a man who went into the swamp to find people. I must have been good at it.

The man in this body once had a mother who locked her gate against her son. I must have hurt her.

The man in this body once brought back a man to be killed over something that was surely of no importance. I don’t want to be like that man.

There is not much to sink into the cool bosom of the swamp. The key to Mama’s gate drops like a shot arrow, making no splash and leaving no ripple. The cord floats for a moment at the surface before the weight of the key drags it down into the black depths of the water.

The San Cristóbal medal is not so graceful. It enters with a round plop, and winks back and forth as it seesaws down to the bottom of the swamp, the yellow of the disc shining up for a long while until it finally disappears.

The notebook, I have to drown. And even then, it fights. It floats up to the surface again and again, as if gasping for life, its leaves spread, its spine poking above the surface. But at last the pages are so waterlogged that the pencil marks fade and the paper shreds in my hands. Fragments float here and there, scattered in a line, bobbing along with the canal’s slow current.

I’ve read it all, once. Whatever it has to tell me, I already know. But I won’t keep it to write in again.

No more either will I sit in garden chairs, waiting to be called. No more will I rise and take off my hat for strangers. No more will I venture into the swamp, to find what others say they want to find.

Others may go yet, if they judge the sacrifice is worth the chance. If they judge the payment worth the cost. But I, at last, have turned my canoe around. I, at last, am headed now for home.

I am Esteban Yaha, Santa Matrona, Florida. And for now, that is enough.

© 2016 M. Bennardo

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