He sat cracking his neck on the veranda overlooking the river. His bed always took some getting used to after months peacefully rocking in a hammock. He might be done with it; the bed, the house, all of it. Pitch his hammock out here and sleep under nets like everyone else. They seemed happy with it. Why should those with nothing be content with their lot and he feel so fucked all the time?
The river wasn’t a torrent by any means but neither the low green stream he was hoping for on his return. It ran full and brown-café con leche-filling the banks the way it never did in the summer and covering the marsh grass that deer would eat wading in the cool shade in the heat of the afternoons.
A swollen cow floated by, hooves reaching for the sky, then a couple of chickens. The lowland peasants always take the brunt of the weather. Floods this late in the season would mean hunger in the winter-not famine-there would still be food here in the most fecund valley he knew, but less of it. Without their chickens and corn they would be hunting his hills for game all winter. Which was fine, so long as they steered clear of the poppy fields, which they knew to do.
He had gambled before leaving and had the crop planted high on the mountain. Making the new clearings so far from where he usually farmed had been arduous but the rains which would have washed him out on the lowland fields, drained quickly up there. He had ridden through the fields on his way in and the crop was beautiful and lush. Thus did the rich get richer.
The sun peeking over the ridge downstream colored the trees and awoke the woodpeckers and the crows. Everyplace the filtered light touched him burned slightly, like a warm stick pressed against his skin. It would be hot today.
He heard the soft scraping tread behind him and steeled himself.
“More coffee Excellency?”
When he was sure Buenila couldn’t see, he had spilled what was left in his cup into the brown river. The pestilential rains had ruined the coffee crop and they were reduced to drinking chicory which was better than tea he supposed but worse than everything else.
“Yes, Buenila. Thank you.”
“It’s good then?”
“Wonderful”, he said turning his head slightly toward her but not looking back.
“Good…” she shuffled away.
Below him a pig floated by, tits up and mottled by the sun. His stomach gurgled an ominous reminder of his miseries.
“Wait”, he called back over his shoulder “A glass of Port instead. And a piece of the bread you made last evening.” She would know to bring the cheese without being told. Might as well start the day.
The sun was directly overhead when he pushed the last of the ledgers away and rubbed his eyes. He still had the eyes of an eagle, but they, like the rest of him, were only good for short spurts. Most of the morning had been spent with Diego, who was effectively the estate foreman, responsible for everything when the Colonel was gone on conquest or otherwise indisposed. Small and dark, Diego was young enough to be-and whispered that he was in fact-the Colonel’s own son. Neither man remembered Diego’s mother-she was gone when he was a swaddling babe, left to the capable hands of Buenila. To the Colonel-then a striving Captain-she had been one in a long continuing series of couplings.
While his wiry physic and green eyes could have been a give-away, neither of the men seemed to care about the certainty of his lineage. As a boy, and now a man, Diego wanted nothing more than to sit astride whichever mule or horse the day’s labor called for and do his work. “Nothing between my God and me but my hat!” he would smile doffing his well-worn woven skipper.
They had opened the canopy before noon and he now toyed with the idea of stringing his hammock and taking his siesta right here. Just toyed. While there was a breeze, the thick masonry walls that had survived two earthquakes to his knowledge kept his house cool even at midday. He would go inside.
Before he could push away from the table Buenila appeared at his shoulder.
“A girl from the village is calling, Excellency.”
The crone shrugged. To her, everyone not of the estate was from ‘the village’.
He settled back in his chair. “Send her out.”
Good Lord, he thought as he did when confronted by young girls. Is this my daughter? He didn’t think so-she was too young with striking raven eyes and thick straight hair the color of jungle dirt. Her cheekbones were high disguising the baby fat that still rounded her. She hesitated at the edge of the veranda.
“Come, come”, he said gently.
The girl shuffled closer. He could not ignore her full pouty lips. “What’s your name, daughter?”
“Laurencia”, she answered. “Laurencia Palacios.”
“Come, come…” he repeated reaching out a hand. The girl held back-walking in sand. Palacios, he thought. I know that name. “Do I know your father?” he asked.
“I see, I see… What brings you here to see me today, Laurencia?”
“My mother, your majesty. She…”
He snorted loudly. “There is no crown on my head, sweetheart. I’m a simple Colonel.”
“Yes sir.” Her eyes wouldn’t meet his. “My mother says I should come by. I should make myself…an introduction. I mean…I should make myself available to you….”
An icy hand gripped the Colonel’s chest. There were women, God knows, who approached him-who always approached him-wanting to be close to him and share what he’d won. And God also knows he had a weakness for them which is why there were so many of a certain age across the territory and in his service that had his green eyes, his sharp nose, his wavy hair.
He was used to these clingers and grabbers and had done, in his mind, a reasonable job recently of keeping his distance from such hardscrabble paramours. These days, his victories and powers brought a different class of women to his bed; ones who had their own gold and houses-even husbands-and only wanted to share of his essence if for a night or a week or a month. That was one thing. There was a special place in hell for those who would whore their daughters out for the same reason.
“How old are you, Darling?” he asked covering his rage.
He watched the girl freeze-the truth of fourteen colliding with the lie of seventeen her mother had given her. He had sat on too many tribunals to be fooled by a naïve virgin and her conniving mother.
“If you are contemplating a lie to me, just say nothing. It will be better.”
The girl stayed quiet, then, peeking up at him, “Fourteen, your majes…colonel.”
“Ah, fourteen. Very good. Very good.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “You weren’t supposed to tell me that were you?”
The girl blushed and looked away.
“No matter, no matter. I’ll make sure I tell everyone you’re eighteen, is it? Seventeen?”
Regardless of her looks and the beginnings of regal bearing, the girl’s accent was of the mud. It was tough to hear such guttural tones coming out of a mouth as wonderful as this.
“Do you read Laurencia?”
She shook her head.
What is this mother thinking? He didn’t know, but he would find out. The girl brightened when he offered her chocolate and a cup of watered wine. She had come up the mountain alone on a handsome burro that she loved and had all her life. The colonel smiled; there is hope for one who loves a burro as the girl loved hers. The words poured about her burro, then her cats, then the dog, then the chickens-the girl who had slinked up the mountain in fear babbled on happily about the animals in her life. Probably preferable to the people she knew. The Colonel had daughters, both known and unknown, native and mestizo, and knew how to speak to girls. What he thought would be a five-minute interview extended to a half an hour of laughter and simple stories.
“Well Laurencia, it was wonderful to meet you”, he said finally. “But I have work…” he gestured apologetically toward the table.
“Yessir. I’m sorry to have taken your time.”, she said primly and stood. “I will go now. Thank you.”
She bowed formally and turned away her pert bottom pressing against the woven dress. They always mature first back there, he thought before looking away.
“Laurencia!” She stopped and turned. “I want you to…” how to say this? He didn’t want to appear to be offering what her mother had sent her for but wanted to ensure that the girl knew she had a place to come to if she ever needed one. “Stop back and see me. I don’t have the time now, but would love to meet your burro. Would you bring him back to visit?”
“Oh yes sir. And I will bring you eggs-from my chickens.”
“You will never be able to bring eggs up the mountain on your burro”, he teased. “They will all be scrambled when you get here!”
“You’ll see. I know how to pack eggs”, she smiled widely and for a moment he saw the woman she would become.
Dios Mio, he thought. Then with a charming smile that betrayed nothing, “Have your mother stop by to see me, would you? Not you, just her. Same time as this tomorrow. High noon. You’ll remember that won’t you?”
“Oh yes Colonel. I will tell her. And remember, I am seventeen!” She laughed like pearls flowing over pebbles.
“Dios Mio”, he whispered as she strode across the patio and was gone. He didn’t feel guilty for his arousal but rather proud that he hadn’t acted upon it.
(To be continued…)