Mary Jo McConahay is a veteran, award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker. Her most recent book is Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest. Visit her website at www.mayaroads.com. She was just named Travel Journalist of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers.
Yellow-headed swallows dipped in and out of thick mist resting on the river. That fog probably followed the water’s curve for miles, I thought, maybe the whole length of Belize. I wouldn’t see a thing from the boat.
Atop a bank overlooking the Macal, I stood with my arms crossed, waiting for full dawn, feeling miffed. The fog had burned off along shore, but the water wouldn’t let it go. As I watched, a chunk of the white stuff seemed to break sideways and soar above the river, a white king vulture erupting as if born of the mist. It tacked and flew close over my head. I saw its magnificent wings trimmed smartly in black, each feather distinct. Shaken from myself, I watched the bird become ever smaller in blue sky, like a rocket launched into space.
“Just you?” came a voice from below.
A young man, very young but no longer a boy, stood tall and tanned, barefoot on the sand. He was talking to me. I nodded.
“Good,” he said. “We be light.”
At the water’s edge sat a feeble-looking craft about ten feet long, maybe a near antique, a fiberglass canoe scratched and dull with age. This tableau below me, I supposed, was what I had purchased at the hotel desk the night before: “River Trip, Laid Back, No Frills, Local Guide.”
The young man’s smile wasn’t mocking, but he was enjoying something, all right. “Yo best be comin’ down then,” he said. Had I been staring at him?
On the beach, I extended my hand, and he took it softly. “Do you want to see the receipt?” I asked.
“Henry,” he said. His long, dark hair was braided into a thousand tresses, each secured at the bottom with a single cocoa-colored bead. I wondered who did it for him, then wondered why I wondered.
“So Henry,” I said, more curtly than necessary. “Do you want the receipt?”
He shook his head no. The smile became even wider, but it was kind. Bright teeth. Full lips. He lifted the bow of the boat and raised his eyes to the aft, a signal I should push. I slipped off my sandals and dropped them into the canoe. When Henry tried to help me board, I waved him away. Lowering myself to the middle plank seat, however, I lost my balance and almost tipped us both into the drink. He didn’t meet my eyes then. I felt spared, but mad at myself as we pushed off from shore.
“Yo wantin’ a ride on da river, Miss Lady,” he said to my back. The engine sputtered. “Yo want to re-lax.”
He was right about that, but I didn’t like hearing it from someone I had known for five minutes. Younger. Who spoke oddly. I had not dropped biology for years of studying literature without carrying around some proper respect for the language and—admittedly—some misplaced disdain for those who did not.
We floated under San Ignacio’s tremulous, one-lane bridge. The rumble of tires on old metal rolled in my ears, beat on my head from inside the skull. I closed my eyes. Re-lax. Indeed.
“Like a thunder,” Henry said. And I didn’t want anyone reading my mind, either.
As we left the town behind, the harsh sounds of the bridge faded too, exactly like thunder receding. The small engine’s soft putter became as much a part of the atmosphere as the birdcalls. In the mid-distance, three white egrets swooped low on wide, smooth wings, synchronized like a team of competitive divers.
I turned around and saw Henry perched on an aft plank painted gray-pink, right hand on the tiller. His khaki pants were cut off above the knee, about halfway up thighs that looked strong as the trunks of young mahoganies. I suppose I had turned around to get my bearings, but I am not sure. Henry steadied the tiller with an elbow as he pulled his shirt off over his head. He was slim, tight across the stomach.
“Da sun, yo know,” he said.
“Da sun,” I said. Then quickly, “Yes, the sun,” and turned to face forward again.
Sharp-billed kingfishers perched on boughs that reached low over the water. Sometimes one spread its wings and leapt to another branch, bright red breast like a shooting dart. A blue heron, neck feathers still adolescent brown, posed on a green canoe, the boat tied up empty, its owner unseen. They bobbed gently together, blue heron, green canoe.
I don’t know how long we’d been floating when I realized the sun had burned away almost all the mist. We came upon a rock that looked covered with brown lichen, and slowed. I dared to turn around once more, and as I did, Henry cupped his hand, scooped up water, and broadcast it over the rock; the brown mass burst into a cloud of tiny insects, thousands of vibrating wings sounding a high-pitched hum. Answering some signal known only to them, they tightened ranks in mid-air, then settled again as one upon another rock, silent and seamless as a prayer rug.
I could let go a little—why not? I gave Henry a congratulatory nod of the head. He grinned, proud of the lovely trick.
For an hour, Henry rowed from the forward plank. I watched his arm muscles strain now and then, but mostly he pushed in the current without effort. Once, when he pointed to the nearby shore, I focused my eyes and picked out iguanas in the trees. They were about four feet long, the kind called “green iguanas,” but which turn brown with age to match the mottled boughs on which they stretch in the sun. I startled myself; I recognized the animals, even though so many years had passed since I’d studied them and their brothers, recognized them even though I had never seen the real thing outside a zoo or a lab. The iguanas might have lain there a million years, I thought, crested backs and long dinosaur tails motionless as high noon.
Below them, spiny-tailed wishwillies scavenged the beach for food. They were the iguanas’ low-caste cousins, smaller, nervous-looking, and perpetually scurrying. Tree iguanas were herbivores, I knew, and wishwillies carnivores. I didn’t need Henry’s description of their repulsive behavior but laughed despite myself when he delivered it.
“When one person is buried an’ everbody leave da grave, dem wishwillie go an’ haf dem a party sure ever time.”
I wondered what else was out there, what lived from the river, what existed in that porous green jungle wall. “Any monkeys or crocodiles?”
Yellow fever “wipe out da monkeys,” said Henry, and hunters “ice da crocs” on this stretch of the waterway. But farther along where the Macal joins the Belize River, “they exist,” he said.
“I do believe da crocodile come back heah someday again,” Henry said dreamily, as if wishing it so.
For no reason I can give, besides the fact that we shared a capsule in time and space, floating hours together now on a river turning warm, I touched Henry’s arm to get his attention.
“I do too,” I heard myself say. “Wish da crocs come back.”
“I studied all this, you know,” I said. “I studied all this once.”
My thoughts came fast now, thoughts long frozen defrosting faster than I could catch them. I wanted to suggest out loud that maybe it was not too late, that I could return to immersing myself in plants and animals, that I could just as well teach science to middle school students as teach them the form of the short story by way of Edgar Allan Poe. I wanted to talk.
Instead, I let myself drift along, taking in the colors of a river that flowed as ineluctably as fate, its course determined long ago. Matte orange bromeliads. Lustrous orange butterflies. Look how the bromeliads tied themselves to the trees, but didn’t live off them; they weren’t parasites. Rather they lived from the dying leaves and other vegetable matter that floated into their petals, soft pastel cups which cradled rainwater and condensation. Insects died there and were digested. I remembered.
A commotion in the bush, maybe a jaguarundi, sent small birds fluttering out of the canopy. White spider lilies grew in clusters along the bank, slender tentacles reaching out—for what?—from the heart of each flower.
Henry’s traveling kit didn’t include shoes, but did include rum. It was dark, and tasty.
“Do we want to take a swim?” he asked.
Later, we lay on the shore. Because Henry wore no shirt, it was difficult not to stare at his left nipple, pierced with a shape wrought in gold. It was meant to be noticed, and he looked pleased when I asked. A marijuana leaf, he said.
“I thought it was a bird,” I said.
“Well, it make me feel like a bird.”
He would not be a mere boatman forever, Henry said, but surely manage his own fleet of half a dozen canoes someday. He knew the plants and animals on the river, taking seriously his job as a guide. “And I read,” he said.
About those things he didn’t know for certain, he said, he had “informed” opinions. The sudden and mysterious fall of the great pre-Columbian Maya Empire, the question archaeologists and epigraphers have debated for decades?
“No one know where the Maya disappear to,” he said. “One day they just pick up they bags an’ say, ‘I’m goin’ home.’
I curled my toes into soft sand. All around us, wild purple bougainvillea emerged from the bush, circling the trunks of huge trees. This was bougainvillea at the Creation, I thought, lush and brazen, embracing giants, not dwarfing itself to accommodate a tame trellis as it might at home. I felt Henry’s hand on my bare shoulder and followed his gaze to a pair of dragonflies with pearly blue necks. The sun shone on their black filigree wings as their bodies moved and went still, moved and went still, copulating on the bow of the boat. It was full midday, but there under the jungle canopy, on a beach practically hidden from the river, the searing air only warmed, like the temperature that opens a bloom.
I drew myself up on one elbow, and reaching over, fingered the gold leaf on Henry’s chest. “Does that hurt?” I asked.
“I do feel it,” he said.
I dropped my hand, but Henry stretched his arms above his head and closed his eyes. “You keep doin’ that,” he said.
It was natural we would make love, I suppose, as natural as the possibility that the river journey would pull me back into imagining a different present for myself.
We motored all the way on the return, to beat the dark, and spoke only twice.
“I can come to da hotel,” Henry said. “My uncle own it.”
“Maybe not,” I said.
Some time later, I heard tinkling sounds, as if from small bells. I searched both sides of the river for what it might be but did not turn around in the boat.
“Da goats,” Henry finally said to my back, and I could tell he had a knowing, contented look on that fine face. I didn’t understand why speakers in these parts said “goats” for sheep, but I didn’t ask.