by Stu Gillam
Here is part 5. Miguel lays eyes on The Box for the first time. Enjoy.
The Producers of the Grijalva Leaf
Quoquerdas led Miguel around behind the large, cluttered desk, past an ancient brazier now converted for use as an ornate stand for the special humidor, and on back to a break room. The sink in the corner of this room was clean enough, as were the dishes in the rack beside it. But the black, tar-looking substance half filling the pot on the coffee machine left a rather different impression. Miguel hoped Quoquerdas wouldn't offer him a cup. Although, a cup of Maria's high octane expresso would certainly have hit the spot right about then. A very old, worn gas stove was set off to the right, its thick, white enamel paint chipped in places revealing the sturdy black iron of its making. The room was claustrophobic to Miguel with no windows allowing for a much needed allotment of light and ventilation.
Off to the left stood an old, wooden desk. Not nearly as ostentatious as the massive, gaudy desk out in the shop, still, it was possessed of fine workmanship. Unlike the shop desk, this one was completely clear of clutter. Miguel could see upon it’s surface only two items: A short desk lamp made of thin tubing bent over at the top and aimed back towards the center of the desk, and a humidor. Like a stage spotlight, the lamp focused a grainy, yellow circle of light upon the large humidor, featuring its magnificent, antique styling and quality craftsmanship, unrivalled by anything Miguel had ever seen before in a humidor. He was unaware that it was the very same humidor Paulo had returned earlier; the one which Quoquerdas and his kin referred to as The Box.
The humidor’s capacity Miguel judged to be about sixty Churchill-sized cigars. The lid was made of Brazilian Rosewood, stained to a rich, dark molasses; and although it had been shallacked to a high gloss finish, the ravages of time had dulled the sheen considerably. The lid had a lip extending around the front and sides of The Box. Upon this lip, a fluted design, faintly reminiscent of a double helix, was carved into the wood scrolling around the perimeter. The lines of this hieroglyph-like etching were painted red and outlined with gold filings, setting it apart from the body of the humidor in splendid artistry. Also of interest was an additional carving upon the center of the lid, done in the same vane as the fluting around the edges, depicting the familiar, segmented, crescent-shaped emblem identical to Quoquerdas’ gold pendant and that on his lighter.
The sides where made of cedar, traditionally used in humidors for its inherent qualities to benefit the aging process, as well as imparting an appealing accent to the aroma of any cigars nestled inside. The finish was stained lighter in shade to the lid, providing a contrasting aesthetic pleasing to Miguel's eye.
Small legs had been skillfully formed from the body of the box at the corners, lifting it three inches from the surface. They faced diagonally outward and were made to resemble paws. Miguel noted the paws gave the humidor a creature-like bearing, as if it were alive and making ready to pounce on him.
Quoquerdas led Miguel closer. He had one arm around Miguel's shoulder, and swept his other arm in presentation of the Humidor. The gesture, as clear in meaning as if the merchant had reverently uttered “behold”, was not lost on Miguel. He could sense Quoquerdas' solemnity in this occasion to present the masterfully constructed humidor to him. Miguel's eyes settled on the finely worked box.
“That’s quite a splendid humidor, Quoquerdas!” he said after a moment. “It looks rather old.” He studied its elegant lines again with utmost appreciation, batting his eyes like a young girl with a high school crush.
“Ancient, rather. ‘Old’ does not do it justice.”
“We’ve placed its creation to sometime in the sixteenth century. It was built in Mexico by Hernando de Grijalva... at least, that is the supposition. He, at any rate, was the first to come into possession of it. That, we’re sure of! I can tell you this, my young friend, there is no other humidor like it.” And soon, you will know why! He stepped further around the desk pulling Miguel along with him. “Come, have a closer look.”
Miguel took his time studying The Box, admiring its lines. He touched it, rubbing his fingers along the red fluting, sensing its age in the worn edges and numerous nicks and scratches marring the surface like the blind sensing meaning from a page of Braille. The tides of history swirled about The Box, impressions of the long eons of time it bore witness to fixing in his mind. He lofted in poetic reverie of the artifact before him. Kaleidoscopic visions, newsreels of sights and sounds from the distant past arose in his mind; the yellow light of the lamp now a projector beam projecting the humidor's life on a movie screen before his eyes; the musty odor rent into the stale air of the room, a breath of ancient winds yearning to be inhaled once again; the desire to communicate with it, to share in the knowledge of what it knew, what it had seen.
He ran his fingers along the overhang of the lid, then moved his palm over the crescent emblem. Pinching the overhang lip between his fingers, he lifted and closed the lid a few times, noting how smooth the hinges yet were, how a faint puff of air squeezed out as the lid shut, and how the suction pressure adjusted as he opened it again, indicating a good, tight seal. He marveled how such an ancient relic could retain it’s fitting like that.
So absorbed had he become in The Box, there came a notion, a faint, wispy hint of an idea, subtle, fleeting. A yearning. A desire. A compulsion to pick The Box up, to hold it close to his chest. A closeness. A belonging. A Kinship. He belonged to this Box. It belonged to him. They fit together, where born for each other, would make each other happy.
Miguel shook to his senses. His heart was palpitating.
His brief acquaintance with the Grijalva earlier had imparted that uncanny uplifting of his soul, amplified, he recalled, by the pungent essences of fruit and wine and cedar and aged leather inherent to the cigar, all cavorting together in a perfect harmony of sensoria in which to contribute to that extraordinary feeling of wellbeing he'd been left to bathe in. Similarly now, that peculiar quality was again conveyed to him, only this time by The Box. There came the perception that it was apropos, expected, to be at peace standing near to this humidor. A sense that good tidings and pleasant feelings naturally go hand in hand with it. More subconsciously than lucid, Miguel thinly formed a connection: The Grijalvas come from this Box, nowhere else! A premonition slithering around his head, dim and unfocused. It ruminated there, never crystallizing into comprehension, rolling over undecided, only tickling his awareness before some new facet of The Box caught his attention and whisked it away.
These feelings and notions crept thin, elusive, as if not wanting to reveal themselves fully to an as yet uninitiated kinsman—as Miguel increasingly sensed himself to be. There briefly—now a hinting at the mystique of The Box's calling: A homecoming; close friends embracing; good times had; an ample measure of frolic and merriment; a lover’s tongue unrelenting in its demand to arouse; sinful cravings dreamt of then quenched; good things; happy things; titillating things. These virtues were connected to the Grijalva Leaf and The Box, and most importantly, to him! Yet it was still only vague minutia, weakly formed and veiled in mist; an emotional undercurrent to be sensed rather than thought through.
He opened the lid again and peered within. Inside, The Box was a study in red. Red felt lined every part of its innards. Formations on the bottom of The Box had been raised from beneath the felt to provide cradles for individual cigars, spacing them smartly were any present, although it was empty now. Miguel could also see two loose, false-bottom panels tucked off to the side, and knew they were used to separate layers of cigars, each with space for twenty cigars to a row.
The felt lining, its color the perfect pitch of blood, had a strangeness about it. How could felt look that smooth, that shiny? Miguel wondered. This felt lacked the typical, furry, matte appearance.
Something startled him. He involuntarily sucked in a short breath and bit his lower lip, trying to register what he saw. Something very odd held his gaze. He became dizzy. Continuing to bite his lip, near to drawing blood, he suddenly realized that the felt had the quality of being moist. Wait, what? Was it oiled? Is that a sheen on it’s surface? Miguel had the sudden and very creepy sensation that he was looking at flesh. It looked stretchable, strangely elastic. Did he actually just perceive glistening?
For the first time, a colder, more malevolent feeling crossed his soul. But he shook it off quickly and continued studying The Box. It was apparent that while the texture of the lining was flat, there seemed to be a crisscross of lines on it, an irregular network represented by slight variations in the tone of the redness; and in Miguel’s eyes, it looked like only one thing: Veins. “How strange,” he blurted, nearly a whisper.
Quoquerdas, standing quietly by and allowing Miguel time to take in the magnificence of The Box, caught this muttering. He smiled, misstaking Miguel's perplexity for reverence. It brought to memory the first time he--a twenty four year old desperado of wide travels and raucous debauchery--had beheld The Box; the time of the real beginning to his life. The beginning to a life that mattered! He sighed, returning his attention back to Miguel. He thanked his good fortune that The Ones had found him, had granted him this new life in partnership with the Gift.
Miguel had all but forgot the presence of the other man. He was captivated by the insides of The Box, something about it causing a fright shiver of cold to course down his spine. He was perplexed for another reason as well: This chill was not at all in concert with the good, peaceful ruminations he’d had about The Box only moments ago. Again, an idea, a gnawing revelation, seemed to itch at the back of his mind, oozing up from the depths within him like thick, roiling lava about to be regurgitated onto the landscape; something screaming to be revealed, to be let out into the open. Something new. Something foreboding. Something unwanted.
Like failing to remember a common word, he ransacked his mind to coax the revelation out. Straining, he urged his thoughts to gel; still the blood red lining captivating him, that incomprehensible wetness defying all sanity of sight. He reached within himself, pulling at the corners of his psyche; red, supple flesh; veins. His mind still fogged, still muddied. He tried to latch onto the resplendent state of felicity the Grijalva cigar had afforded him prior, but it was lost now. The Box dominated the moment, so close, so open to him, reaching to him. Reaching FOR him. What was it? This is too odd! Try to see, Miguel, what is it? What is happening? his brain nearly folding under the strain.
“WHAT IS THAT?” he yelled aloud.
Quoquerdas stood silent, alarmed, growing with concern.
Slam! It hit Miguel. A vision:
The inside of an organism. Inside The Box was all viscera, living tissue. Blood and guts, warm and sticky and wet and glistening. There, a heartbeat. There, veins pulsing and constricting in a dreadful rhythmic beat. There, yellowish globules of fatty pudding jiggling. There, blue-white hues of tendons and nerves quivering. Respiration. Awareness. ALIVE!
Miguel stumbled back away from The Box, repelled by the vision, nearly keeling over with sudden sickness rising in his gut. What the hell was that? the thought screamed through his mind. He could not fathom what he had just seen. He was unwilling to believe the veracity of the vision, loathe even to recall it. He fell back into a chair beside the desk gasping for air.
“Miguel? Are you alright? What's wrong?” Quoquerdas did not expect this reaction at all.
MIguel wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, then covered his mouth, contemplating. Strangely, he had a deep craving for a cigarette at that moment who’s nicotine injection could not be equaled by any cigar. “Yes, yes... I’m fine. That Box, it...” he stammered. What a strange and inconceivable experience, an incomprehensible vision. A hallucination? Had that lunatic drugged him? He fought to maintain his composure.
“The Box is impressive, I know.” said Quoquerdas. “It’s magic, you know.”
“What? Did you say Magic?”
“Indeed, magic!” Quoquerdas barked, almost in admonishment. “It’s been difficult trying to broach this subject with you tonight. And I’m sorry for not coming right out with it. But you are so thick headed!” He tried to calm himself. “I know you are leary of me, Miguel. Yes, I know, and not without fault of my own. But that must change!" He stepped closer, reached out a hairy arm towards the ancient Humidor and closed the lid.
"You're so new to it all, " he continued. "So unaware as yet. It’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all night. It’s a powerful magic, Miguel, a benevolent magic. It is a gift for all with Grijalva blood running through their veins, and it exists for me, for you, and for all our kin. You belong to this magic, my son. And you will reap its rewards from now until your dying day.”
“You must be out of your mind, Quoquerdas. What the hell are you saying?”
“Don’t you believe in magic, Miguel?”
“Christ, here we go. Quoquerdas, is it your aim to totally confound me this evening?” He turned once again to the Montecristo, his crutch, which by then had burned down low, warming the skin between his fingers. A satisfying pull drew dense, Cuban-seed smoke into his mouth where he let it trickle out ever so slowly, a wall of smoke held close, clinging to the curve of his lip, the forest of his mustache, then funneled up into his nostrils, met nerve endings, and calmed him greatly. “To answer your question, yes, I have seen my fair share of voodoo... a bit of witchcraft, you might say. In fact, my mother practiced the arts. So I’m no stranger there.”
“Voodoo? Witchcraft?” Quoquerdas let go a laugh which exploded from the corners of his mouth and steadily increased in volume; a crescendo of rips and snorts that seemed to bounce off the dusty wood plank walls and float back mockingly to Miguel’s ears. Miguel frowned.
“Forgive me, my son,” Quoquerdas snorted through the laughing, trying to contain himself. “I don’t mean to poke fun at you, and indeed, I do have a certain reverence for your mother’s art, but, truly, my boy, what you have become intertwined with here tonight is of so much more... shall we say ‘potency’, that to even reference it in the same breath with ‘voodoo’... well, it’s just laughable.” He chuckled one more time, then added: “And like I said, it’s a more benevolent thing than her dark arts, as you will come to see.
“You are a direct descendent of Hernando de Grijalva, Miguel. I make no mistake about this, I assure you. The Box is yours... for a time, at least. I give it to you this evening, and you alone shall produce Grijalvas for us all, you alone, Miguel, for it is your calling! And I welcome you to the family.”
Miguel brushed back his thick, long hair with his hand. The nights proceedings left him puzzled and weary. What the hell is this old kook talking about? Magic... he said it was magic. The thought was outlandish. Benevolent magic? He removed his eyes from Quoquerdas and reacquired The Box. Benevolent magic my ass. He was not prepared to believe any of it at that moment. True, there was a sense Benevolence from it... sort of, he though, Perhaps initially, for he had not forgotten the way he felt when he first came unto The Box. But what of it’s insides? What was that I saw? He cringed at the thought of wet, glistening organs beating inside the humidor. Even if there was magic, there was NOTHING benevolent about that box! Why won’t this man just replace my damned bundle and let me get the hell out of here, for God sake?
“Magic, you say?” he spoke. He pressed forward before the man could answer. “I don’t believe you, Quoquerdas... even though I'll admit there’s definitely a mystique about that box.” Despite his doubts, the vision still remained fresh and unsettling in his mind. “I... I thought I... like saw something... something weird about the inside... you know?”
“The inside? What could possibly be wrong with the inside? I can tell you this, my cousin, the craftsmanship of this humidor is exceptional. What, pray tell, are you talking about?”
“I don’t know... it just seemed..." He brushed it aside. "Anyway, listen. I can say one thing for sure: Judging by the workmanship, and if its age is even remotely close to what you suggest it is, well... then that box is worth a fortune!” He got up from the chair and moved back to The Humidor. Steeling himself, he opened the lid again. But everything looked normal now. He thought he could still make out the faint impression of veins, but the overall image, the sensation that he was looking at living tissue, was no longer there. That relieved him immensely.
Then one of the things Quoquerdas had said flooded into his mind. He closed the lid and looked hard into Quoquerdas’ eyes. It was time to get down to business.
“You say you are giving me The Box? Is this to be your offer in recompense for the worm sticks then?” He held his breath waiting for the reply, the Montecristo having burned so low now that his fingers yellowed with resin.
“I give you The Box tonight, Miguel, and so much more! But there is still much to discuss before you may leave with it. For with The Box comes a great duty. As I told you before, you will use it to produce Grijalvas for us all."
Quoquerdas then stood tall and straight, sucking in his rotund belly and firming up his posture as best he could. He seemed to grow in size and stature that moment, towering over Miguel, all hair and frizz and grease and sweat and pomp and circumstance, his gold tooth shining dutifully, a lighthouse beacon to guide Miguel home. He then proclaimed in a voice deep with pride and conviction: "You are now The Producer of the Grijalva Leaf, Miguel Perdone! You will be so for as long as The Box accepts you. But from this day forward, even after The Box has become sated on your blood, you will forever be Kin, and you shall reap the benefits granted to you by right of your heredity for the rest of your days." Then he seemed to slump back to normal size and posture, and spoke in his normal, wiley tone, "For now, I must explain all that you must know in order to manage your great responsibility, your new station. Do you understand?”
“You are a wily old fox, Quoquerdas, and I'd swear you're toying with me. Further, I don’t for one moment take any of your ridiculous remarks to heart. But if you’re prepared to let me leave with this treasure... well then, I’m all ears. So talk to me if you must. And make it quick... or Maria will have my head if I don't return soon with milk.”
A damp, throaty chortle bubbled out from the tobacconist’s lungs. “Indeed, my Son,” he said, “Then listen to me now... and listen well.”