From the Tales of Guatgital
| It was back in the time before the automobile, before the electric light, when people still walked on air, and the volcanoes spat water instead of fire, and the sparrows pecked at the frozen pigs’ carcasses which lay scattered about outside the entrance to the home of the Maestro Eduardo Aguilar, which stretched, in its brilliance, across the south side of the city of Guatgital, at the foot of the water volcano which flooded the city once every hundred years and washed away the coffee plants and corn which lay between the mountain and the golden walls of the house of the Maestro. On the morning of this very day, Aguilar would step out of his mansion for the fifth time in his hundred and fifty-seven year life and face the citizens of his city for the last time. As he opened the creaking door of chancharana wood and stretched his arms to greet the hot summer day, three long blades like fangs were thrust into his neck and back, and the assassins scurried away, not believing for an instant that he could be dead, for he had died many times before and come back the next day as good as new, if a day older. For they remembered just the previous year when the drink of Eduardo Aguilar was poisoned, and he turned back his head and drank his clericó in three short gulps, a few seconds passed, and he collapsed, his head descending like an anvil into the bowl of clam chowder before him, spraying globs of white blood that reeked of the sea over the nearby guests, who stared on in fright and were soon ushered out, and a white sheet was placed over the body of Aguilar, and that night the silence of the city was palpable, as everyone lay in angst inside their meager homes, not allowing themselves to believe that the rich man by the mountain was finally dead. The next morning, over the short walls surrounding the garden of Eduardo Aguilar, a boy of twelve could see the man himself, swinging gently in a hammock under the mangrove, twiddling his thumbs and sucking in the crisp morning air which smelled faintly of pineapple. As the boy watched, the Maestro got out of his hammock and walked back into the house, shut the side door behind him, and disappeared from sight, and the boy ran off to tell his parents, and his parents told the town that the rich man Eduardo Aguilar was still very much alive, for their child would never lie, he had not been raised to do so. The child's testimony was proven correct when passersby saw an extra contingent of guards at the entrance of the house and saw the light of Eduardo Aguilar's room turn on in the dark hours of the night, when even the nightingales could not be heard through the thick mist of drowsiness, and the clouds glowed like embers against the moonless sky that was darker than pitch, and could hear his voice, it was him, without a doubt. So, the three assassins hid in the bushes for three days watching the dead Aguilar, until they were sure he could not possibly be resurrected, for the maggots had eaten one of his eyes away and his stomach had been gorged on by vultures, and the face, which was normally handsome in an elderly sort of way, was in such a state of putrefaction that they could hardly make out his nose, and they took him into the square and, in front of a thousand spectators, hung him like a common criminal. And it brought back memories for all of them, especially Eduardo Aguilar, who recalled a similar episode which he witnessed when he was just a small boy when his father had been hung by the people after he was implicated in the murder of San Eduardo, no relation, and he was dragged to the square and slung up as the people chanted down with Aguilar, down with the Maestro, and his son Eduardo looked on with horrified eyes, and they met his father’s just before the sling was released, and he was dead in seconds.
The day that Eduardo Aguilar was killed was the same day that the water volcano erupted, and flooded the square just hours after he was hanged. The waves tore the roofs off the homes, knocked down the walls of the Maestro’s golden mansion, and toppled the mangrove tree on which the family hammock had swung since time immemorial, but the body of Eduardo Aguilar simply rocked gently side to side as the waves gushed past, as if in response to a light wind. When the flood was over, the town was in ruins, but Aguilar’s body still hung there upon the pole, swaying in the summer breeze. Slowly, his body rotted away, first, a leg was gone, then an arm, then his neck gave way until it was only his head that hung there, the eyes disintegrated into their sockets, and the skin stretched tautly over his skull like a zombie, but still the people did not let themselves believe that he was truly dead, for he had survived poison, he had survived the electric chair, he had survived the anvil, and the bulls, and even cyanide, so what was a hanging to him? It was not until a hundred years had passed once more and the town was once again flooded, and the pole with the head of Eduardo Aguilar was finally washed away, that the people knew he was dead, for until then, it had been as if he were still there, watching over the people of Guatgital, his one good eye followed you as you walked past, as if it was the only part of him still living, but it was enough, because the people could not believe that the man who called himself the Maestro was finally dead. He called himself the Maestro because that’s what his father called himself, and his grandfather, because they owned the city of Guatgital, so they could call themselves whatever they wanted. Legend had it that Eduardo Aguilar’s great-great-great-grandfather had been the only professor at the only University in the city, and all his students would call him Maestro, and when he died, they called his son Maestro, because you couldn’t tell the two of them apart, and the name stuck. Eduardo Aguilar was not a professor at all, and in fact he had been the one to disband the only University in the city because they were teaching the class about Che Guevara, and Che Guevara doesn’t exist, they are teaching them lies, mother, what has become of education in this day and age? And after the University, the other schools were disbanded, until there were children roaming the streets at all hours of the day, playing on the gravel in front of the house of the Maestro, even during siesta time, and the stomping of feet and screaming of joyous mouths became such a bother that Eduardo Aguilar himself stepped out of the hammock under the mangrove tree, opened the side door, walked into the kitchen, through the courtyard, and kicked open the front door, and yelled get out of here, waving his arms so wildly that the children thought he was possessed by demons, and he closed the door and grumbled to himself, damned kids, and walked with slogging steps back to his hammock, and the entire city was deathly quiet because they had all heard his shout and had shut right up, and he had the rest of his siesta in peace. From then on, it was mandatory that everyone slept during the hottest hours of the day so as not to disturb the Maestro in his hammock under the mangrove.
Relative to his friends and followers, Eduardo Aguilar was considered old by the time he was just thirty years old, because many of his family and friends had mysteriously gone missing in the night and returned several days later as a corpse at the doorstep of known communists, or delivered to the guerillas in the mountains while they were sleeping. They would then be buried by the person who received them, the knife dragged out of their back, the poison pulled from their blood, bullets extracted surgically, and given a proper funeral, complete with one of the rare subversive priests, or occasionally a layperson with sufficient knowledge of the prayers. By the time of the Maestro's death, every one of the guerillas, the ones that survived, now old men, would know every prayer by heart. The attempts to avenge these deaths were unsuccessful, primarily because the people they decided to kill either refused to die or were the ones that Eduardo Aguilar had already decided to kill, and more likely the latter.
There was only one person old enough to remember the first death of Eduardo Aguilar, and that was his mother herself, Victoria Aguilar, a sad, dirty woman with caves for eyes and canyonous wrinkles cracking through her age-darkened face like dry mud. She had watched her son die from the windows of the second floor of the mansion when Eduardo was only forty-six years old. He was swinging gently in the hammock under the mangrove and twiddling his thumbs when a great crack sounded, and a rumbling that sounded like the end of the world, and two enormous bulls crashed through the garden wall and impaled the man himself on their horns, once through his arm and once through his chest, and slammed him into side door, and only then did they stop charging, pulled their horns from the Maestro’s chest and arms, and walked back out of the garden through the hole they had made, and Eduardo Aguilar lay against the door, bleeding from his arm but not his chest, and from above, he could not hear his mother Victoria Aguilar scream in terror and race down the stairs only to weep over his limp body. She wept and wept, until sunset, when she dragged him indoors and he was not seen again by anyone but her until a week later, when, through the hole in the garden wall, a farmer on his way to the coffee fields could see the Maestro in his hammock under the mangrove, slowly turning the pages of a time-worn book, his gold-rimmed glasses perched at the wrinkled tip of his crooked nose, his shirt unbuttoned because of the heat, revealing the plastic crucifix that he kept tied around his neck. After another week had passed, the hole in the wall was mended, and it was as if nothing had ever happened. And that was why, on the same day that the water volcano was set to erupt when Eduardo Aguilar was stabbed three times in the back and hung in the square, the people did not believe that he could possibly be dead. There was no celebration, no parade, it was as if Eduardo Aguilar still ruled over the city of Guatgital, for still, the University was not reopened, no one was out during siesta time, dogs still stayed inside their houses tied up, and the children would not play outside after lunch, because if they did, they knew that the severed head of Eduardo Aguilar would catch them, and they would be thrown to the dogs, because the dogs could defeat anyone except their master, and everyone knew it, because everyone remembered the day that Aguilar himself was thrown to the dogs, and they ripped his flesh off of his body, dragged him through the streets by the stubs of his ears, and lay him down to rest at the foot of the mountain by the coffee farms, and his servant girl found him there, his head half-buried in the dirt, his bloodied hands collapsed over his face. She brought him back to the house of the Maestro, and the following day, his neighbors swore they saw him open the front gate of the mansion to pick up the newspaper, and waved to us tiredly when he saw us watching him, and then, like a ghost, he drifted inside, his eyes fixed on the paper that he had written himself just the previous week, which talked about how the national income was the greatest it had ever been, and the poverty rate was lower than ever, and about the fiesta that would be hosted in the square on the fourth of August to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his rule, and the entire city was invited, and on the night of the fiesta, the entire city came, because they would get food and water for free because they couldn’t afford it anywhere else, and the following day the paper showed photographs of the crowds, showing that the Maestro Aguilar was the most beloved of all men, even the dogs came to share in his glory. And Eduardo Aguilar quietly disappeared from the crowd, opened the door to a nearby home, and climbed the stairs to the roof, and stood there, and he yelled ATTENTION! and all eyes turned toward him, and he declared from the rooftop that this day would from now until the end of time be a national holiday and that on this day August fourth every year the fiesta would take place here in the square, and then a great crack sounded, and a burst of light and the people could see a magnificent bolt of lightning slice through the body of the Maestro, and he fell to the ground, blackened and smoldering, and everything fell deathly quiet. All one could hear were the brooding sounds of the clouds in the sky and the quiet tinkle of faraway rain on sheet metal rooftops. And then two figures pushed through the crowd toward him, picked him up, one by the armpits and one by the ankles, and they carried him off and out of sight. Two days later, the newspaper published a column written by Eduardo Aguilar, the man himself, that said that I, Eduardo Aguilar, am here to tell you that I am well, I am strong, and in full possession of my faculties, for God has given me his blessing to heal quickly so that I can continue to protect the people with a firm hand, and he signed his name at the bottom of each newspaper, Eduardo Aguilar, so that everyone would know that he still had a strong right hand. The next day, when he opened the front gate to stretch in the crisp morning air, he saw the carpenter across the street with a pile of newspapers in front of him, get your newspapers here, signed by the man himself, cheap, and he nodded briskly to the Maestro with a conciliatory smile on his lips, and Eduardo Aguilar walked across the street and said I’ll take one, and he laid a bill on the counter in a parsimonious yet still gracious way, and the carpenter, now beaming, gave him his paper, and from his manner Eduardo Aguilar knew that the man was a foreigner, and Eduardo walked back across the street, his focus so firmly fixed on the paper that he did not hear the rumbling of a food truck coming down the street, and he didn’t hear the carpenter yell get out of the way, señor, and the food truck kept going, and the Maestro was flattened under its monstrous wheels. Then, he stood up, dusted himself off, tipped his hat to the foreigner, who stared on in dismay, and walked back through the front gate and behind the golden walls of the mansion. In truth, Eduardo Aguilar was just as dismayed as the foreigner, but for a different reason, for he had never laid his ancient eyes on anything so beautiful as a food truck before, and his mind raced as he thought of ways he could cultivate this power. First, he called the food company on the telephone, and asked if he could commission one, or perhaps two, señor, of the trucks they used for transport, and in two days time, he had three of the food trucks, with the logos still attached, parked next to him as he gently swung in his hammock under the mangrove, taking in the sweet summer air, reminiscing on those fleeting parts of his interminable past that he could remember. Once in a while, he would emerge from the comfort of his hammock and waddle, with aching steps, to the first food truck, and he would open the trunk, grab a cold glass of pineapple juice, and return to the hammock, refreshed.
In the Maestro’s waning years, he began to take a senile fascination with lizards. One day, as he was pacing about in the courtyard in the center of the mansion, he could see a lizard sunbathing on the hot stones of the fountain, its purple scales seeming to glow with the reflected sunlight. He sat in the shade and watched it in contemplating silence until a duck landed with a subdued splash in the water of the fountain, and the lizard vanished in a puff of smoke. This was clearly an omen, and Eduardo Aguilar took it as such. He walked serenely back into the house and found his mother in the music room where she sat knitting a summer scarf, and he said, mother, my time has come. She looked at him with sadness in her eyes and said not a word, and he turned, and, accepting of whatever fate awaited him outside the front gate of the mansion, in fact welcoming it, he strode out of the house with dignity, to be greeted by three long daggers like fangs in his back, and he fell to the ground. He waited anxiously as more and more of his blood came gushing out for the assassins to emerge from their hiding places in the bushes. When they finally did, they picked him up and brought him to the square, where they hanged him like a common criminal.
He could remember when he was just a small boy when his father had been hanged by the people after he was implicated in the murder of San Eduardo, no relation, and he was dragged to the square and slung up as the people chanted down with Aguilar, down with the Maestro, and his son Eduardo looked on with horrified eyes, and they met his father’s just before the sling was released, and he was dead in seconds, and he remembered it with such ferocity and vividness that he knew that it wasn’t a dream, and he finally knew, he finally knew where his father had gone all those years ago, and that it was him, it was his father who had killed San Eduardo, San Eduardo who he loved so much, who he put his faith into, who possessed the same name as his only son, and Eduardo Aguilar knew it could not be so, his father was not a murderer, he was framed, he was framed by the wicked peasants, those rats, criminals, they had framed him, mother, and he watched with hateful eyes, he watched the people going about their daily business, the thieves, he watched them buying food at the market, and he watched them day and night, he learned more in five years about his own city than he ever could in his hundred and fifty-seven years, because that’s where they got their liquer from, even though he had outlawed it long ago, and that’s where they got their weed, and their knives, and their philistine fabrics, he saw it all, through the thick mist that blew in from the mountain, when the summer lightning lit up the sky with its glory and he could see everything as if it were day for just an instant, the muggers, the drug dealers, the stray dogs that dared only emerge at night to escape the fury of the Maestro, and he saw it all while his one good eye slowly rotted away with hopeless fear and hate and disgust.
He watched it all for a hundred years, before he finally said I’ve had enough, and he let himself be washed away with the floods of the water volcano which erupted once every hundred years, and his eyes closed in peace as if he were going to sleep at the end of a very, very, long day.
They finally found his head two weeks after the flood washed it away from the square when Santiago Dias the carpenter happened upon it while washing his clothes in the river. It was caught between the roots of an ancient tree, reeking of nothing on Earth, the frozen skin mostly decomposed and the skull crumbling like foam, and the thin, dirty hair trailing in the icy water. As he stared at it for a moment in disgust, he could see a butterfly hang in the air for an instant above the decayed temple of the Maestro, and then it alighted on his head, folding its wings like the closing of a book. He set his clothes down on the bank and ran to tell the city, and they all came running down to the river, huddled tightly around the harrowing skull of their king of generations, and someone said look at his eyes, for they no longer seemed alive, and they could all see that he was as dead as a doornail. But they could not believe that after a hundred long years, the Maestro Eduardo Aguilar, the man himself, was finally no more.