My girlfriend, Eva, was the one who suggested I write it. After I told her I could still hear those bats squeaking and the flies buzzing around in my head, even now that I’m back in Quito, she said, maybe it would help get it out of your system, you know? Why not? Anyway, all you have to do is write a story about some guy in a foreign country and maybe make him gay and get a little sex involved and you could probably sell it. Hell, who knows? But even now that I’ve written it down, I still don’t know what to make of it. I mean, why do things work out the way they do, anyway? When I was out there I kept thinking, I’m no better and no worse than most people. But here I was, south of Quito, Ecuador, well, now I know it was close to Baeza, with piss in my pants, and tied to a platform made out of tree branches. It made no sense.
Anyway, I did write it down, I tried at least, because I thought it might help to put the words together on a piece of paper. So this is how it starts: I can’t see the man standing over me, but a metally odor like old onions drifts into my nostrils, and I know he’s there. For the past day, and the night before, and the day before that (it wasn’t really so long, but I thought it sounded better in the story), the smell has floated up whenever the wind shifts or whenever he crawls out from under the platform. There are a lot of flies buzzing around and bats hunting for insects, I guess, and the squeaking sound they make annoys me. I ask him about them and he tells me they are the free-tailed bats, very common in Ecuador, and then he covers me, even my face, although loosely, with a plastic tarp to keep off the flies and the rain which began yet again this evening. The smell of plastic is a change from the scent of his body, and later when he removes it, some moist, mossy odor floods into my brain for a moment before the onion smell comes back, like a familiar nurse-maid who lovingly refuses to leave my side.
When I first asked the onion-smelling guy about the squeaking noise, I thought it was some kind of birds, maybe, and he said, “No, it is the bats. They try to catch the moths and other insects that are flying in the sky and take them to their babies. They squeak and then their baby squeaks back and the mother knows just where to find him, even though there are many hundreds of them. They all live together in the big—what do you call it? El hogar de los niños—the nursery, I think it is, except it is for bats.” Well, he actually said, it’s just bats, now shut your mouth—but I didn’t think the way he said it in real life sounded like what a writer would write so I changed it. I’m a high school teacher, not a writer, so I don’t really know what I’m doing. I came here because I thought it would be different from where I last taught, in Logan, where things are real tight-assed, you know, real conservative. I thought here the lines would be a little blurrier, things would be more relaxed, people would be allowed to just live. But anyway, my story, yeah, I tried to preserve the little things, the smells and stuff, I know that much at least, about how you’re supposed to do it. So then I had: In the subtropical cloud forests of Ecuador, which is where all this took place, the trees—cedar, cinnamon and myrtle—are covered with moss and because orchids and pineapple-like plants grow right out of their trunks, a sweet scent hovers near even after the branches have been cut from their source. But when my girlfriend read that she said maybe that was too many smells for one paragraph, and the reader would get so they couldn’t smell anything at all, like when you try on too many different kinds of perfume in the drug store. So I crossed that out and started a new paragraph.
The man standing over me taps me on the chest. Thumps me, is more like it. Thump, thump, with that middle finger of his; the one that is permanently bent at the third joint. Thump. My chest sounds hollow, like the tin man. I thought you had a blindfold on, didn’t you? she said. How did you know his finger was bent if you couldn’t see anything? And I said, but I didn’t write yet that I had a blindfold on. And she said, yeah, but you know you’ve got a blindfold on and you said you couldn’t see him, so you’ve got to write it like that’s the way it was. So I changed it to, the one that I saw earlier is permanently bent at the third joint. Okay, she said. That’s better. But you probably ought to say about the blindfold pretty soon so the reader can picture what’s really going on in this situation. Like I said, my girlfriend was a big help.
So then it goes—this is the guard guy talking now, the one who tapped me on the chest. “Wake up, you. You aren’t dead, are you? If you’re dead, we’re both dead, so don’t be dead, okey dokey?” He thumps me again and then pushes the bandana which serves as a blindfold up onto my forehead. “Okay, amigo?”
I try to keep my eyes closed for as long as I can just to worry him, make him wonder a little, but I can’t do it for long. I open them and look at his brown ones. In the pale light I notice again that the lashes around them are long and curly. Even the lower ones are dark and thick, giving him a sweetly childish look. “You have beautiful eyes,” I start to say, but my tongue is dry and sticks to the roof of my mouth. “You could get me a drink,” I say instead. Why did he say that? my girlfriend asked me. You. Why did you say that, about his eyes? I didn’t really say that, I said. It just sort of came out that way when I wrote it down. Isn’t that okay? Yeah, she said, I guess, I just wondered.
He smacks my chest heartily with the flat of his hand as if we were old buddies—old college buds, and I had just told him about the chick that I saw at a frat party last night. Her tits were perfect, man, I swear it, she’s stacked, you’ve got to get a look at her. He smacks my chest again and pulls the bandana back down. “Sure, a drink, you bet.”
What is this perfect tits part? asked my girlfriend. Who’s saying that? Nobody’s saying it, I said. The main character, the guy tied to the platform, is pretending he said it. Okay, she said. Whatever.
He speaks good English, although with an accent. I imagine him walking now through the tall grass and ferns to the water bucket, which is in, I think, a small stream about twenty feet away. I count the seconds it takes for him to get there and back. If he’s not back by fourteen one-thousand, I think he’s not coming. This worries me. Fifteen one-thousand, sixteen one-thousand, seventeen one-thousand. Then the hard metal of the ladle presses against my chin; I open my mouth, and a dribble of water runs over my lips and tongue. I swallow. “Where’s Omar?” I ask. Omar’s the guy who had the gun in the first place, the one who made me get in the truck.
“It’s too early. He’s not here yet.”
The onion smell is suddenly overwhelming as he wipes my face off with a piece of cloth. It must be a t-shirt. I almost gag, but feel reassured by the intimate nature of his gesture. I lift up my head and swallow hard. “When’s he coming?” I try to shift my back so that the branches can poke into a new spot. That way I will have two small sore spots or three even, instead of one big one. This seems better to me for some reason. My wrists are raw from the ropes rubbing on them, so I don’t move them at all.
“I don’t know. By three o’clock, he said.”
He’s angry and he doesn’t care as much about me now that I’m not dead. Dead . . dead . . . dead is a weird thing to be, babe . . . I wonder, vaguely, about these words which seem to dart around, like the bats, in the hollow of my brain.
“Some of your rich amigos better come through for you pretty soon. I’m sick of taking care of you out here, you know that?” His voice comes from above me, tenderly, it seems. “I’m sick of you, too,” I say.
Okay, she said. This is really freaking me out now. Is the prisoner guy thinking that the guard guy likes him, or something? It’s like he thinks this guy cares about him, which he, of course, doesn’t. Why would you care about someone you kidnapped? Well, I don’t know, I said, I told you, it just came out that way when I wrote it down. But people do weird things when they’re in a bad situation, you know? Maybe he just wants to think the guy cares about him so he won’t be so scared.
I feel a movement of air over my face as he reaches toward me and gently jerks a handful of my hair. “This hair is the brushing kind, the kind you wash and smooth over and let the women run their fingers through. Don’t they have—what do you call it?—a dress code—at that school of yours? Aren’t there any rules?” So what, is he coming on to him now? she asked. Is this the gay part? Just wait, I said. “It’s a one-year deal. They don’t seem to care that much what I look like. They just want people that can speak English, mainly. Dead is a weird thing to be babe . . . now you’re a stuffed instead of a wind up. . . Annica. It was her poem. Wait, my girlfriend said, I have no idea what you’re doing with this dead is a weird thing to be poem stuff in here, or who this Annica girl is, but you ought to have something about how you got kidnapped in the first place. Some background information, to kind of clear things up.
But see, I haven’t written that part yet, because it was pretty embarrassing and it just doesn’t seem like good story material exactly. What happened was, I was sitting in my classroom, a fine peaceful Friday afternoon, kids just left for the day, even the junior girls who sometimes hung around after school, Annica, and her friend, Shelly. I was just about to go down the hall and take a leak, and in walks these two guys, right into my classroom. One of them was toting a semi-automatic pistol of some sort, I don’t really know anything about guns, but it looked real, that much I could tell. And the guy with the gun, he says a bunch of stuff in Spanish, which I think meant something like this: Come on, muchacho, get over here against the wall. So I thought, okay, now that sounds like a good idea. I mean, there was no window to crawl out of or anything, and the two of them were standing by the only door. So over I come and they back me hard into the wall and say something like, Okay, buddy boy, you are going to come with us out to our fine automobile, because we want to take you for a little ride.
Okay, I say, knowing I didn’t have a rat’s chance in hell of doing anything else. I’m not one of those Jackie Chan types, you know, I’ve taken a little Tae Kwon-Do, but I’m not into those whirligig kick jobs those expert guys pull off at the drop of a hat. I keep trying to make jokes about it—see? But there was sweat popping out on my forehead, and it was cold—one minute my face was dry and then there were cold drops running off my face and this blackness started coming behind my eyes, but it didn’t matter, I just had to do what they said.
After we were in their truck they tied a bandana around my head, and I didn’t get to see much more, but I did get an eyeful of the two of them before they got the blindfold on me, which at the time I thought was a good thing—their brown pick-up was missing a couple of hubcaps, I remember that, and they were wearing some flimsy shirts and pants from a suit, old ones, like navy or black, and one of them, the one with the crooked finger, the knees of his pants were kind of greasy-looking. As it turned out, it didn’t really matter what I saw. But they drove me in this pick-up for hours, seven, eight, at least, all three of us crammed in the front, until finally, and I mean finally, because I had to take a piss so bad I couldn’t have held it any longer, they stopped the truck.
“I’ve got to take a leak,” I said, but nobody paid any attention, because they were busy doing something, I couldn’t tell exactly what, because I still had that damn blindfold on, and my hands were tied behind my back. The embarrassing thing was, I had to go, so I finally just let loose in my pants. Can you beat that? I hadn’t done that since I was six or so, when I got lost from my mama one summer at the state fair. So I had these soggy pants on, and they were wet, because I had drunk about six cups of coffee that day. The coffee here is wonderful—it’s so dark and rich—but anyway, they tied me to the platform, which was made of tree branches. I saw later that’s what it was, just a bunch of branches tied onto two horizontal poles which were stuck in the side of the hill with their other ends propped up on two forked sticks. So there I was lying there in my wet pants, smelling just like a great big baby. They didn’t say a word about it, they just tied my hands to the branches, one on each side of me. They tied my ankles together and kept that blindfold on me, and I couldn’t do anything, I just had to lie there with my pants sticking to my legs.
Anyway, I was lying there, and Omar, he was the one with the gun, he says some more stuff in Spanish, something like, Now look, Josie—don’t you think Josie’s a funny name for a man?—you gotta keep this guy tied up and make him do some eating or drinking, at least. I’ll be back tomorrow night by three o’clock with the ransom money. If I’m not back, that means I’ve been caught and probably tortured or killed or something and you better shoot this guy and hightail it out of here. You got it?
And the other guy, Onion-man, he says, Yeah, okay, okay. He could speak English pretty well, which is probably how he got this job, like the way I got mine.
So, the first guy, Omar, he gets back in their truck and takes off and there I am, left with the other fella. Me and him and my soggy pants. I lie there for a while and the flies are buzzing around and then I start to notice there’s some squeaking noise up in the air, right, it’s the bats, so now we’re up to the bats, which is about where I started in the first place. So see why I didn’t really want to tell that part? Oh, but I did forget, after he told me about the bats and their babies, I told him I had a missionary friend who said that once these people in a church called his friend, who was also a missionary, to pray for their cow, their one cow, and when he got there, there was the poor cow, just covered with bats, sucking the blood right out of it. Those were vampire bats, I believe, and not the kind we had flying around our heads. And this fellow that was guarding me asked, What happened? I said, well, they had a big prayer meeting; it went on for hours, and in the morning, the bats were gone. They were so happy. But then another time, the same thing happened and they called the missionary back and this time nothing happened; instead, the cow was even worse in the morning, all weak and sick and on the verge of death. So these people who had been good Christians up until that point, doing like they were supposed to and all, they suddenly changed back to pagans or something like that, and just killed the missionary right on the spot and cut him up and ate him. So, things don’t always go the way you expect them to, you know? Who knows why? It doesn’t make any sense.
Where was I before I started on all that background stuff? Oh, yeah, the guard guy, Onion-man, was pulling my hair and asking about the rules at my school and I was sort of thinking about Annica and this poem of hers. So then the guard guy says in his tender voice, “You are quite good-looking for a white guy. I could untie your feet, at least, and one of your hands, and we could, if you want to, you know, fool around for a while. Is that how you say it? Fool around?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Okay.” So he does and we do. Okay, you never told me that before, said my girlfriend. That is so disgusting! And it’s not good writing, either. You can’t just say, So he does and we do. How could you do that? Hey, this is just a story, I said. It just sort of came out that way and besides, you told me to have some gay stuff in there, remember? Maybe you shouldn’t read any more. I took it from her, but she said no, I want to read it, and grabbed it back.
When we finish, I see he has the gun, so I can’t do anything, like get away, which was what I was hoping for, and he ties me up again. Afterwards, because it’s drier down there, he slides back underneath the platform. As he jostles around below me, bumping the platform, I have the sudden sense that I’m balancing on only a narrow strip of branches, that I’m about to fall over the edge, sliding and bumping down the hillside, unable to claw any sort of handhold in the grass and ferns. Then I hear him take a deep breath and sigh as he settles in. The platform reestablishes itself firmly under me and I’m safe. I can’t go anywhere and the onion smell rises again to greet me . . . your spirit thing rises like a yeasty balloon, the get up and go . . . Annica. She just keeps coming up somehow; I don’t know why. “When’s Omar coming?” I ask again.
“By three o’clock tomorrow night, or you’ll be a goner, you know? That’s the rule.”
“The rule? What rule?” I feel that I must shout to be heard over the bats and the flies.
“‘Shoot him if I don’t come back by three.’ You heard him.” He pokes one finger up through the branches and into the back of my thigh. “Do not worry, amigo. You will not even know it. I can do it so quick. I’m very good.”
“What rule?” I say again stupidly. I didn’t know there was a rule. My insides twist painfully, as if a snake was squirming through my intestines. Someone told me there were a lot of snakes in Ecuador, even around Quito, where I teach, but I haven’t seen any. I have seen white earthworms, though, when the rain comes down heavily, at least eighteen inches long, and maybe an inch in diameter, slipping up from the ground like the spirit of a snake, an albino imitation.
The noise of the bats seems to recede and I hear a bird now, some Ecuadorian bird, a macaw or a yellow-headed parrot, perhaps. It squawks from the bamboo trees beyond the stream. Tee-who, tee-who, it says. I could be a bird, I think, a green one with a black beak and a shiny eye. Just one shiny eye. That’s all you ever see. They hide their other eye, until no one is looking.
Annica. I can’t seem to get rid of her. I lie there on the branches, and I can see her standing outside of the door to the school, as clear as if it were happening right now. “Annica, hey,” I say. “What’s going on?” “Could you give me a ride home?” she says. “My dad was supposed to be here, but he’s not. He’s a missionary, did you know that? Isn’t that perfect?” “I did know that,” I say. “Phillip Saint, missionary man. You can’t beat that.” She stands there looking at me and her eyes get all teary. “He’s not such a saint,” she says. “I need a hug.” “Okay,” I say. I was following along with my girlfriend as she read. She’s my student, I said, when she got to that part. She’s upset. I have to help her somehow, don’t I? You can’t just stand there and watch someone cry and do nothing, you know? But she just kept reading. So I do. I hug her like she asked me to. And then I kiss her a little, because she’s still crying and she says, “I want you.” So I say, “Okay.” We walk behind the school into the trees and I want her too, I want to comfort her. And I want other things, too. It wasn’t like I’d been thinking about it ahead of time, but we’re out there by ourselves and things are happening and then we’re on the ground and I pull her panties off and I can see the sweet dark silk of hair she has down there, and a little mole on the inside of her thigh. And afterwards, she laughs and tells me about a new poem she’s writing. Her poems are always about animals and insects and flowers that are squashed and dying. But this one isn’t, she says. It’s about stars and white clouds and springtime. So I lie there on the branches thinking about how nice that all felt, but when I close my eyes, they feel rough and gritty, like somebody ran sandpaper over the surface of them. “What time is it?” I say. I wish I could go to sleep now, just for a little while, but my eyes won’t let me. They pull themselves open just as I am about to drift off. So I hold them open wide underneath the bandana, hoping then maybe they’ll want to go shut, and a tear gathers in the corner of my right one. Just my right one. It floods my eye because I am lying on my back and it has nowhere to go.
And that’s about all I had written down so far when my girlfriend read it. She looked up after that last part, and I could see she’s about to cry. It’s just a story, I said. It just came out that way. The guy in the story, he’s just a character, you know? But she plunked the whole thing down on the table in between us, and I said, Does that mean you don’t want to help me with it any more? No, she said. I’m finished. Okay, I said.
There wasn’t that much left to write anyway, though, except the way it ended, which was that I lay there for a long time, way past three o’clock, and Onion-man paced around and around the whole time, trying to decide whether or not to shoot me. I held just as still as I could on the platform trying to think about living and not dying, but all that would come into my head was this picture I saw in a book about South America that showed a woman in a remote tribe sitting on the dirt and on one breast she was nursing a baby and on the other one, a dog—a mongrel of some sort. “Dogs are sacred to the Guaharibo Indian.” That’s all it said.
And then I thought about my own mama in Idaho and how she read to us sometimes—The Thirteen Clocks, that was the one I liked, with the Duke, who had killed Time and wiped his bloody sword upon its beard, and Saralinda, who floated like a cloud, and the thing running up a flight of stairs, the thing without a name, with four legs and no arms and on its head just one eye and a few strands of grayish hair blowing back as it ran. Under the darkness of my blindfold, I could see the thing running toward me, out from the trees of the Ecuadorian jungle, running toward me as fast as it could.
I pulled my hands up hard, but the ropes scraped against my wrists. “Why are there so many flies?” I shouted then, and Onion-man, he tried to whisper, but I could tell he was fed up, and I remember exactly what he said. “It is the pitcher plants,” he said. His face was so close, I could feel his breath on my ear. “The insects come because of the red and the purple leaves, then fall down into the nectar and drown. They drown,” he said in a louder voice. “The plants digest them for food. One minute they’re buzzing around and the next—they’re gone.” He snapped his fingers. “Just like that.” He went back to pacing. “Five minutes, just five more, do you hear me? Do you hear what I say?” Then there was a pause and for a moment the quiet seemed to be everywhere, all around me. “He’ll slit you from your guggle to your zatch, the Duke will,” Hark said. “You’ll be geese-feed before night.” Geese-feed, I thought, and tried to reach my hands toward my belly, where my pulse was throbbing in my gut, like a little heart, a heart in my belly.
“Oh, God,” Onion-man said then, whispered it really, and his footsteps pounded away as another voice suddenly burst out, “¡alto!” it said. “¡Alto!” It was the police and while I was still thinking about the cold hands of the Duke and the thing without a name, they shot Onion-man dead, right on the spot.
Now I probably won’t finish it, my story, because the whole thing seemed to bother my girlfriend a lot, and I was just writing it because she thought it would be good. And the school, they’re not going to let me teach anymore, but believe me, I don’t know why. It was just a story. I don’t know what my girlfriend told them, but I’m not really much better or worse than anybody else.
But I’ve been thinking about it, and what I was going to write was about how they told me they had caught old Omar and tortured him and then shot him, too, after he told them where I was. I didn’t know it ahead of time, but that’s the way it works here in Ecuador, with kidnappings, even if the kidnappers have never done anything like that before. They don’t ask questions, they just execute the suspected kidnapper right then and there. I was going to write about hearing the shouts and the gunshots and how I lay there thinking about the sacred dogs and Annica and the Duke with one part of my brain and with the other part counting one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, and how I heard the sound of someone coming toward me through the grass and a swishing noise as if something were being dragged. And I was going to end it like this: The air was very still after the gunshots; no monkeys chattering, no birds squawking, nothing except one fly humming slowly near the pitcher plants. In the subtropical cloud forest of Ecuador, the trees—cedar, cinnamon, and myrtle—are covered with moss and because orchids and pineapple-like plants grow right out of their trunks, a sweet scent hovers near even after the branches have been cut from their source. I feel the air moving over my face and someone pushes the bandana up onto my forehead. I open my eyes and see a man wearing a brown hat. His forehead is wrinkled, but he smiles at me. He cuts the ropes on my wrists and pulls me to a sitting position. I look down at the ground and see Onion-man. His beautiful brown eyes are still and looking at nothing. The smell rises, but it is not the same. It is mixed with something else, iron and soft new dirt and the smell of orchids. My eyes fill up and the tears run straight down my cheeks and onto my lap.