by Diane Root
“In the beginning was the Word…” (“Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” by T.S. Eliot)
She had never heard The Word. It was a word with resonance, both mellifluous and malignant. But there was something about its undertones, slightly menacing, she thought. There was an undertow of terror, a darkness, an urgency.
She spoke Spanish quite well– to the point that some called her guachupina, describing those of Iberian origin, not a particularly complimentary term, given that she was in Mexico. But she had never heard the Word. Pero, no es nada más que una palabra. But, she wondered, didn’t someone say that the word was mightier than the sword.
She had meandered all over the country, wandering down the eastern coastline as far as the Yucatan and Chiapas, up through the center, staying in places like Lake Chapala, Ajijic (a hiccup of a place, the foreigners joked), San Miguel de Allende, Queretaro, and beyond.
Now, she was tumbling down the Pacific coast, through fishing villages that were barely there—a few shanties, a street or two, sometimes cobblestoned, often not. She forgot the name of the tiny place where she first heard The Word, but she remembered the sea, the beach of volcanic sands, an ebony that shone both in the sunlight and in the moonlight–a curved expanse of coarse black diamonds, facetted only by the angle of the light.
“There is nothing peaceful about the Pacific,” one paisano told her. He was right. She should have heeded him, but armed with the arrogance of youth, she went into those Prussian blue waters anyway. She was, in those days, a strong swimmer, she thought. On the onyx beach, there were several fishermen calmly mending nets on the edge of the curve, chatting, sometimes singing, on the sparkling sands.
She dove in and swam far out from the shore, delighting in the rushing chill of the water, the crush of currents, testing her strength. Then she started heading back.
The fishermen had dropped their nets, their awls, and ran pell-mell, flailing their arms frantically in an effort to get her attention, pointing to something behind her. The wind carried their cries to her.
That’s when she heard The Word. She instinctively knew what it meant. She didn’t dare glance over her shoulder to see what menaced her—she already knew. Fueled by fear, she plowed sleek and silken through the waves faster than she had ever swum before. She made sure that she didn’t kick up any splashing with her arms or legs so as not to attract attention to herself. She was, after all, an easy prey—a moving target battling cross currents and panic, welling up within her—an undertow of oceanic proportions.
By some miracle, she made it almost to shore, exhausted. The fishermen rushed in toward her to pull her out of the shallows.
“¿No sabe, señora, que aquí hay pescados muy peligrosos? Aquí hay…” and then came the Word again.
It was then that they told her the story. A few years ago, they said, a skull, denuded of all flesh, had washed up. They suspected that it was the head of a missing comrade, who had, they thought, drowned when swimming too far out in the shifting currents and cruel waves of the Pacific.
A few days later, a mammoth corpse of a fish, bigger than a blue whale, also washed up on the beach. The authorities were called. Some expert was summoned from Mexico City.
After some incredulous examinations, he declared, “This is a Megaladon, a behemoth of the oceans, long supposed extinct, but has somehow survived in the deep. God only knows what else is down there.” His statements were followed by a shudder.
“And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
bones live? And that which had been contained
in the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
…. We shine with brightness.”
The corpse decomposed rapidly under the heat of the Mexican sun, revealing the gleaming, monstrous bones. And within the bones, another skeletal set, minus the cranium.
“Clearly, a man,“ he said. “Considering the barrel chest, maybe a Neanderthal.”
But the fishermen knew better; it was their friend, Antonio.
As she wended her way toward the village, she would have recognized the way even had she been blind. Mexican villages, however small—one-burro towns, as a British wag once put it–announced their location by a cacophony of music—from houses, bars, tiendas, all of which spilled out onto curbs and cobblestoned streets, saturating the air, lending a lilt—even a gayety to her gait. She had never felt more alive.
Later on, after a few shots of tequila at a bar, appropriately named La Cucuracha, she heard the Song that had lured her in, surprisingly in English. One newly arrived American, seemingly disoriented to whom she had recounted the story, asked, “So what was The Word?” he asked, punctuating the air with invisible quote marks written by his long, tanned fingers.
“Tiburón,” she answered.
“What does it mean?” Handsome, but dense, she thought. No imagination.
In the background, the jukebox should have jogged something. Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” was playing yet again, “Scarlet billows start to spread….” The Song was still audible despite the animated conversations and raucous laughter that filled the tiny, tequila-drenched, tenebrous place.
“Shark,” she said.
Diane Root, a dual-national, was born in Paris of an American father, the journalist and writer, Waverley Root, and a French mother. Primarily known as a painter, she is, as she describes herself, “an accidental writer.” She never sought to be published but that notwithstanding, she was nonetheless published in the New York Times Magazine (“The Artful Dodger” about lunch with Picasso) and various other venues. View her art: http://matakia.com.