Art by Mimi Bai
The light was a lake, hot and bright, and Rowen Royce was no swimmer. She stepped down from the 29 bus and sank beneath the waves. Came back up, dogpaddling, on the north side of the Plaza de los Aturdidos where old men were selling popsicles from Styrofoam coolers and young women were selling themselves. The sight of women flaunting their haunches hurt her eyes. She drew in her breath. I’m here now, meaning in Paraguay in a different way. Quitting was easy. Hard started now.
She exhaled. Bought a popsicle from a guy whose grandfather had been a fish in the Paraguay River. It was the way his silver whiskers were coming in that gave him away. They were scales. In his seventh decade he was returning to his watery beginnings not by choice but by unfathomable compulsion. Rowen was grateful for the chance to take in the mystery of such a man. If she had never joined the Peace Corps, he might have slipped down the bank into the water—it was a stone’s throw away—and nobody the wiser.
She borrowed the plastic whistle the fish man used to attract customers and blew on it long enough to baffle him. The women lounging around benches under mottled shade waiting to be picked up by a man with money in his pocket looked over at her with passive interest. The whistle blast was meant to warn them. Run, get away while you still can. She faced them, windmilling her arms, but there was no indication they understood the signal, or cared. She handed the whistle back to the fish man.
She had Esteban Cabañas’s address on a piece of paper. Pencil on paper. Old school. Not having a phone was important to her although all the Paraguayans seemed to carry them. If you had a phone it decreased the odds you would ask directions of a prostitute standing under a lapacho tree in a neighborhood plaza, you would be delighted by the unexpected smell of lavender around her, you would address her with respect, hoping against hope she perceived it.
The woman pointed. That way.
At Cabañas’s front gate she clapped, the way Paraguayans did, and a middle-aged woman with big feet who walked as though she had a spear in her side came out to the street and interrogated her and finally let her in.
The artist’s studio was on the ground floor of an old colonial house, spilling onto an interior courtyard wild with bushes, birds in cages, and a palm tree with hanging clusters of coco like the fragrant brown bunches poor people were hawking on the street to celebrate the birth of Christ.
“You came,” said the artist.
This was the moment toward which Rowen had been driving, blind and determined, and emotion shortcircuited her. Her mouth was dry, she could not speak. She nodded, which made her feel like a child taken to task.
He was sitting in a wicker rocking chair in a strip of morning shade, drinking tereré, the green tea that protected Paraguayans from heat and other calamities. He refilled the cow horn with cold water and handed it to her. She sucked on the silver straw. The familiar taste of the tea swirling in her mouth reminded her that she was choosing exile, nobody was making her stay.
“Did you do it?” he asked her.
He meant quit the Peace Corps. The birds, silenced by her arrival, were starting back up again. Now she knew that racket could have melody, and melody could move in multiple directions at the same time.
He nodded. He must be seventy and had an old man’s age-defying paunch. His eyes behind thickish lenses saw the principal things that interested Rowen: pain, inequity, the struggle to fight back, the taste of defeat and what came after defeat. He was serene, he was coiled and could strike at any moment. Rowen would not tell him that it was his art that pushed her to the edge and then over it. No need. He had an artist’s vanity and knew what his work was capable of doing to a person. Wasn’t that the point?
“They’ll puncture your balloon,” he predicted. “This country is full of sharp objects.”
He looked at her for a moment, evaluating. “I don’t need an assistant, I just fired one. He had beautiful legs.”
Esteban was gay. That had made staying in country, contesting the General’s hegemony through the years of his tyranny, that much more difficult. He walked with a limp as a result of a police interrogation back when questions were physical.
“I’ll work cheap,” she told him.
“You’ll get in my way.”
The biggest cat she ever saw, white and black, made its way across the deep red tiles of the patio flexing its shoulder muscles and looking up. Esteban pointed to the birdcages it fixed on, out of reach.
“Here’s the question,” he said.
“All those exquisite feathered creatures, an orgy of killing and eating just waiting to happen, and the cat will never catch a single one of them. I make sure of that.”
“So what’s the question?”
“The cat’s existence.”
“Is it Heaven, or Hell, or someplace in between.”
“Purgatory, you mean.”
He shrugged. There was no faking that indifference. She was stalling for time. The answer she came up with would seal her Paraguayan fate.
“In the morning it’s Heaven,” she told him. “In the afternoon it’s Hell. In the evening it’s Purgatory, to the extent that a cat can remember disappointment.”
He nodded slowly. “They make you cry, you’ll hop on an airplane and fly back to Kansas where the cities have sidewalks.”
“I’m from Wisconsin.”
“I don’t want another assistant.”
Rowen looked at a sculpture standing beneath the coco palm, a human figure, female and extravagant, emerging from stone that did not want to relinquish its petrifying grip. Like much of what Cabañas produced, if she looked at it long enough she would tremble.
“A museum in Prague wants it,” Cabañas told her.
Every conversation, any conversation, would be a contest. He would win all of them. She went into the studio. There was rubble on the floor, chips and dust from a stone block not yet delivered to its destiny. She swept it up.
Mango Borda believed himself to be emancipated and wanted praise. The night of the day that Rowen swept up the sculptor’s rubble she chose to sleep on the sofa in his apartment. The day just behind her felt momentous, and she wanted to lie alone and think.
Mango was smoking his nightly spliff. He carried a chair close to the sofa to ask her a question. “That thing you said the other day? How you like things to be, de la vieja guardia.”
“Old school. What about it?”
“An old school Paraguayan would not tolerate your defection.”
“I’m not defecting, I’m sleeping alone.”
“Impossible for a man of the old school to believe a woman could resist him, alone under the same roof.”
In T-shirt and shorts he was not just beautiful, he was flawless. His raven hair, tied in a ponytail, gave him the look of a man who rose above the trivial. His thin face was a stage for the complex emotions continually playing across it, auditioning for permanence. He was ripped but did not overdo the work-outs. They had been together for two months, and she believed his poise was real.
She told him, “Good thing you’re not an old school guy.”
A lizard ran up the white wall behind them. She didn’t see it, she felt it. Paraguay had sharpened her senses, and her imagination. When they started working together, that was when you approached the real.
“They say Cabañas can be a nasty son of a bitch,” Mango told her. “Sting in the tail and all that.”
“I don’t care.”
“Esteban had his time. He was incredibly brave, standing up to the General in the old days. But that time has passed. It’s a different world.”
“Digital, is that the world you mean?”
He shrugged and passed her the smoking spliff. She shook her head.
The only tension between them had to do with motivation. Mango believed Rowen had come to his country in search of dirt. She wanted sweat and blood in the mud. She had heard a song about the struggle against oppression in Latin America and longed to sing a verse herself. He called it her romance antiguo. And maybe the world of solidarity in action that she longed for still existed. If it did, it was irrelevant to Mango, who worked in IT and felt a deep contempt for politics. The real struggle, the struggle of today and of every tomorrow he could imagine, was over bits, bytes, bandwidth. It was all about access.
There was a moment when he wanted to entice her to his bed. But he sensed her resistance—he was good at that—and left to sleep alone.
In the morning at the sculptor’s studio Rowen began organizing his drawings. They were studies for pieces he would make, ideas of ideas. Someday a collector would snag them, an academic would make a book of them. The day before, the disorder had blown her away. Ten years of drawings—whimsical and surehanded, precise and suggestive—were scattered everywhere, uncared for. Instinct told her Esteban did not require clutter to be able to work, and she showed up with folders. When he did not stop her sorting, she took it as approval.
Midmorning he disappeared to take a phone call. When he came back to the studio he told her to pack a bag. She understood this was how it was going to be. An hour later he picked her up in front of Mango’s apartment in his green Land Rover and they left the city.
She knew without being told that they were going to his ranch. As the city came apart behind them they moved south into green countryside of pastures and fields and woods that was deeply familiar to Rowen. Her Peace Corps job had been in the south, in the country, in a village where nobody starved and everybody was hungry. They drove. Her patience had no limits. She could wait all day to learn what was up.
Going through San Ignacio, one of the little towns pasted along Highway One, he downshifted and asked her, “This computer guy you’re with.”
“Does he know how to read?”
“He knows how to think.”
He liked her answer. They left the highway and were traveling on a dirt road, raising a dust wake as they went that coated four teenaged cowboys and the herd of Zebu cattle they were driving. The cowboys stood in their saddles, waving quirts, whooping and laughing like analogue men for whom the idea of a social media profile seemed like disrespect. That might or might not be true. Possibly their phones were in their saddlebags, and they had “Feyboo” accounts. As Esteban maneuvered slowly past the cows he told her the story.
He wrote a column for one of the papers. Words were weapons, wielded with intent to injure. Sometime he used a rapier and sometimes a broadsword to skewer the politicos, the businessmen, the generals who made a travesty of the word democracy. Once in a while, a thrust drew blood. The blood provoked a death threat. Having survived the General and his dog pack for several decades, he had a good sense of when to take a threat seriously.
“But they know you have the ranch,” Rowen said. “They know where it is.”
“They think they’ve done their job if they can drive me out of Asunción for a while.”
“Do you know who’s behind this?”
“There are three candidates. I prefer not to vote.”
“Are you afraid?”
He glanced at her, hands at ten and two on the wheel. “Ever read St. John of the Cross?”
She nodded. “The dark night of the soul.”
She liked making it come out in Spanish, but her reflexive parroting of the words made a tag line of profundity, which ticked him off. It was her first glimpse of mean in the man. He mocked her pronunciation, her vacuous chant.
“La noche oscura del alma.”
But the irritation vanished as quickly as it came, and he told her, “We’ve gone downhill since the sixteenth century. What appalls me is the thought of expiring in a dark night of the body.”
This, she thought. This is why I’m here.
They discovered they were compatible in silence. He drove, and she fell into the trance that being in the campo always induced in her, a feeling of isolation and approach, as though she were getting close to a bush that would burst into flame the instant it came into view.
The ranch was less grand than she had imagined. Esteban was known around the world. You could see his work in London, Madrid, Oslo, New York, and he seemed to have plenty of money. But Colina Verde was a single-story house with a roofed porch, a fenced patio with bitter orange trees, chickens and ducks in the grass, a black pig suckling a black litter in a pool of rusty dust. And pastures. They spread out across the land like concentric lakes of light, every dun cow grazing, head down, an island. There was no studio. Esteban came to Colina Verde to get away not just from death threats but from the work of his life.
They were welcomed by the caretakers, a sister and brother in their middle sixties. Florencio and Florencia were deaf and dumb and looked like the twins they were. They had a blockish appearance, thick in the waist, with short limbs and faces like half-carved masks. They looked, in fact, like models for figures Esteban would sculpt. Their smiles were rehearsed, the sounds of welcome they made a language of their own, with unpredictable inflections.
Rowen and Esteban washed their hands and faces in an enamel basin filled by Florencia while Florencio saddled a black horse. He brought it up to the house for the sculptor, who pulled a straw hat from a peg on the porch and settled it on his head. He mounted the horse.
“I’ll be back,” he told Rowen.
He rode off into the light as through a door that swung closed behind him. This, thought Rowen. And, Here. It was what she wanted, where she wanted it.
Rowen knew how dangerous cane whiskey could be. Back in her village one long bad night she had gone blind and lost her memory. She woke with a sense of shame that never entirely left her. Since then she had stayed away from the stuff. But that evening when Florencio produced a bottle, pouring glasses for them with self-conscious reverence for the act, she knocked back her shot and hoped.
They ate the chicken whose neck she’d watched Florencia wring, and sprinkled salt on sticks of boiled mandioca, and Esteban asked her the same questions about why she was in Paraguay that Mango liked to ask. Maybe it was the caña, maybe it was the moment, or the questioner, but she found it easy to be straight with the sculptor. Liberating, she would say, except that she shied away from words her parents beat like drums.
“I grew up in Madison, near the university. My parents are lawyers.”
“So you came south to escape the snow.”
She shook her head. “I came to escape the preaching.”
He elevated his eyebrows just the proper degree.
“My mother and my father are public defenders. That means they represent people who can’t afford a lawyer. They don’t make much money, and their politics are relentlessly progressive. They never stop talking.”
“About the outrageous things being done to the country, and to the world, by the forces of American reaction. I reached a point where I could no longer listen.”
“You chose to do rather than to speak.”
He looked older out in the country than he did in the city; worn out. He had come back from his ride around the ranch sweaty and frazzled, as if the green enormity of the campo cowed him, too. Under an infinite sky of steel plate the most secure artist might feel his insignificance, and the casual nature of death.
She drank a little more, cautiously. She would not lose her grip, she would find a perch and light there. She kept her mouth mostly shut. Any question she might ask would come out moronic. The night streamed on around them, a black river with the patience to wear down obstacles in its bed. The caretaker twins had done their duty and went to sleep in the shed. And Esteban told her what she wanted to know.
“I have a friend in France.”
The French had been the first to recognize the art and the courage of Esteban Cabañas. They bought his work, they celebrated his achievement. They lionized the lionhearted sculptor whose work and life had been an affront to the General who ran Paraguay as though it were one big ranch to which he had incontestable title. When the General fell, they pinned a medal on Esteban’s chest.
“My friend has a small vineyard in Bordeaux. There is a studio with a view and an independent situation. He wishes I would join him there. It is a place of abiding beauty. The landscape soothes the eye.”
“You could still write the column,” Rowen said. “You could email it back to the paper in Asunción.”
He nodded. He sipped. At age seventy he knew how much was too much. “There are people who produce their best work in exile.”
From her perch, half lit and wholly content, Rowen nodded.
He said, “I’m not one of them. If I move to France, I lose myself in fatuous repetition. I become a parody of myself.”
“Which means you have to go on putting up with death threats.”
He practically snarled, “You fool, don’t you see that’s not the point?”
The insult did not bother Rowen, not even a little. A cow lowed in the quiet night, a sound of dim apprehension that made her wish she could protect all the sentient creatures in the world that needed protecting. The cow sounded close. Here, she repeated to herself.
“What, then?” she said.
“Abstraction is too easy,” he said, sorry to have snapped at her, unable to say so.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“In art. Since realism played itself out, we’ve all relied on abstraction. One develops an idiom of one’s own. He takes form, shape, color, makes a language. I’ve been lucky. People take the trouble to decipher mine. They say, ‘Ah! This piece speaks resistance to tyranny,’ and they buy it. They applaud me, often for the wrong reasons. But I want to try something new. I want to be direct.”
“Rodin is dead. And my bones ache. Quite possibly I am too old to be new.”
The conversation was over. Rowen was grateful to realize it. If she asked a question, if she said a single word more, she would spoil the extraordinary confidence. She stood up and stretched so Esteban would know that she knew. Outside, the cattle were lowing together now, packed sounds stacking one on top of another. She might have taken it as a warning but didn’t. The explosion took her by surprise, and she fell to the floor in terror.
“There are people who produce their best work in exile. I’m not one of them. If I move to France, I lose myself in fatuous repetition. I become a parody of myself.”
It was the Land Rover. When flames reached the gas tank, the car went up like a rocket. If Esteban had parked closer to the house, it would have gone up, too, taking them along.
Darkness aggravated the confusion, which was intense. Rowen thought they should stay in the house. Maybe there were men with night-vision goggles ready to take them out with rifles. But Esteban knew that if his enemy had wanted to kill him, he would have firebombed the ranch house, not the vehicle. Florencio and Florencia did not hear the explosion, but they sensed it and were outside before Esteban and Rowen, shouting their panic with their hands. Esteban calmed them down, signing with patient proficiency as Rowen shone a flashlight on his hands. The four of them walked repetitive useless circles around the burning car, as though it were a ceremony none of them had mastered, until the flames died down.
After the caretaker twins went back to bed, Rowen walked blindly in the dark away from the house and the ruin of the car. When her legs would no longer support her she sank onto the grass and crossed her arms on her chest to stop the trembling. That worked, and then it stopped working. In a while she felt Esteban’s hand on her shoulder.
“I’m guessing this is not what you had in mind, working with me.”
She got to her feet. Beneath the dominant smell of smoke, a whiff of cane whiskey survived in both of them.
“You’re right,” she told him. “Abstraction is too easy.”
He made a sound that suggested he understood. She had to say it out loud to make sure she understood it herself.
“I’ve been living a fantasy in my head. Mango calls it my romance antiguo. When your car blew up, the fantasy went with it. I’m scared.”
“So your romance is dead?”
She shook her head, wondering whether he could see her in the ambiguous dark. He had found her there. “No. Whatever is going on, for me it’s the beginning.”
“The beginning of something real,” he said.
She was grateful to him for putting it into simple words, and they walked back to the house and lay down. He slept. She could hear him snoring in the other room. Not fear but what came after fear kept her awake. It had a rough texture and rubbed against her thoughts.
In the morning Florencio took the black horse to summon the police, and Esteban called Asunción for a car and driver. Florencia made breakfast, her strong hands stuttering in indignation now that the panic was over.
“Will the police do anything?” Rowen asked Cabañas.
“No. They will have been warned, or they will be afraid of antagonizing a powerful person.”
“Then why call them?”
“You can’t bitch about the system not working if you don’t ask it to.”
But he was shaken. And he was right. The police did not show up. A taciturn driver in a small black Mercedes drove them back to the capital. It was a long ride. The confidence between them of the night before had been torched along with the Land Rover. In Asunción, Esteban had the driver drop her at Mango’s apartment.
“What happens now?” she said, reluctant to get out of the car.
“Stay away from the studio,” he told her.
She nodded, acknowledging that she heard him, and she understood that what came next was none of her business. It was not the moment to make a stand.
That night Mango thought he was doing her a favor, putting the situation in perspective.
“Idealistic, attractive young American woman goes to an art gallery in Asunción. A creation in stone takes her breath away. She does some research and finds out the sculptor is also a political hero, and he’s here in town. What luck! She doesn’t know which she admires more, the work or the heroism. She knocks on his door. He takes her in. On her second day working for him the two of them come within a hair’s breadth of being murdered. How does that sound?”
“It sounds about right.”
“So, have you had enough?”
She shook her head. In the morning she went back to the studio early and was at a long table organizing Esteban’s drawings when he showed up.
“I don’t want to be responsible for you,” he told her as he walked in, phone in hand. His coldness was not hostile, but it was plenty cold.
“You’re not responsible for me,” she said.
He shrugged. He went to work. But it was not a productive session. Every few minutes his phone rang, and he took all the calls. After one, he told her, “In this country our generals are commercial geniuses. They have a system. They tap the resources of the state to finance their personal business.”
“Which one had your car blown up?”
He shook his head. “The less you know . . . ”
“What about Bordeaux?”
He frowned, forced to visualize an image of his friend’s studio. Independence, and a view that soothed. “Right now, one thing matters to me.”
He meant the piece he was working on. It was too soon to say whether it would be the new work of an old man, and Rowen knew better than to bring up the subject. Everything he had to say was in the stone, or would be.
“Why don’t you switch off the phone?” she said.
He looked at her as though she had suggested he stick feathers in his hair and run screaming around the block. Then he turned off his phone. He worked. She organized.
That evening she was meeting Mango and some workmates of his at a bar downtown for drinks to celebrate a piece of software they had developed. It was a mobile app they believed would help rural villagers get microloans. In retrospect, she had to admire the brutal efficiency with which three men in a Brazilian Ford rolled up to the corner where she was waiting for a bus, dragged her into the car, and took off at a not-quite-prudent speed. They must have practiced.
The windows were up, there was no AC, her abductors stank of body odor. They were young and lacked subtlety, lacked geostrategic vision and people skills. She carried pepper spray in her purse and wondered whether she could get to it before they attacked her. They did not, however, do what she expected. On a dead-end street in Loma Pyta they parked and pulled her from the car. They stood her up like an exhibit for the prosecution.
“You’re a spy,” one of them got in her face to inform her. “A dirty spy.”
He was a little older than the others, maybe twenty five, and clearly had seniority. His face was a hatchet, his mouth twisted in resentment. His T-shirt advertised Pizza Hut.
She made the mistake of laughing even though she knew it was a mistake. It angered him, but he did not take it out on her. Perhaps he was following a script and did not want to be sidetracked.
“Tell us what Cabañas tells you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“What you report to the embassy.”
“Which embassy is that?”
One of the junior abductors raised a hand to hit her. The blow would have come down on the side of her head, but the older man muttered something that checked his swing. He seemed, to Rowen, oddly respectful.
“Stay away from the artist, understand? Next time we’ll hurt you.”
That was it. They left her there. As they drove away she wrote down the license plate number, the make and color of the car on a pencil and paper. Old school. She had to walk a long way before she caught a bus back to the city center. By the time she got to the bar, Mango and his friends were gone.
“On a dead-end street in Loma Pyta they parked and pulled her from the car. They stood her up like an exhibit for the prosecution. ‘You’re a spy,’ one of them got in her face to inform her. ‘A dirty spy.’ His face was a hatchet, his mouth twisted in resentment. His T-shirt advertised Pizza Hut.”
The following day the French ambassador came to the studio. He was a gangly man in a suit with exaggerated lapels and a distracted air as though he had misplaced something but could not recall what it was. He and Esteban spoke French; it drove Rowen nuts not to follow the conversation. When he left, the sculptor took pity on her.
“Relax,” he said. “It’s good news. Ambassador Moreau went to the foreign ministry to register his government’s concern for my wellbeing.”
“And that will help?”
“It won’t hurt.”
He seemed relieved, and she almost told him about being abducted. She didn’t. She was afraid he would ban her from the studio, from him. She had not told Mango, either. She lied, telling him she stayed with a Peace Corps friend down with food poisoning, and forgot to call. She was glad she kept the incident with the men in the Brazilian Ford to herself when Esteban asked her to take over the email account he used for business.
“Use your judgment,” he told her. “Consult me when you need to. Just now, I don’t want to think about transactions, favorable or unfavorable. There is a decision that must be made.”
“What’s the decision?”
“Do I retract the claw, or scratch again?”
“Garra del Gato” was the name of the newspaper column he wrote. Cat’s Claw. It came down to this: if Esteban chose another subject for his next column, the general would consider he had won the argument. No more vehicles would explode.
Rowen asked again. “And if you scratch him again?”
They were drinking tereré in the patio. The black and white cat paced in frustration, the sweet pain of birdsong in its ears. The big-footed housekeeper passed by with a broom like a hunter stalking small prey. Esteban took the cowhorn she passed him and sucked on the straw.
“If I back down, it will be like escaping to France. Even if I stay here. The end of my work. I did not choose to be this way.”
“Perverse. If I do not resist what begs to be resisted, my work atrophies. I am unable to work in conditions of peace.”
“Because you have a conscience,” Rowen said.
It was exactly the wrong thing to say. He glared at her, shaking his head in disgust. “Sentimental pap. I thought you were educable. But you’re not, are you?”
She was not a thick-skinned person. She could be hurt. How come she took any unkind thing he said as a gift? “What is it I don’t see, Esteban?”
“The pathology of the oppressed. Live with a boot heel on your neck, and when it’s lifted, you can’t breathe.”
Two days went by. Esteban wrote the column. He showed it to Rowen. It scratched, all right. His claw was sharp. But he did not make up his mind to publish it, or not to publish it. Working in his studio, drinking tereré with him in patio shade, inhaling the sweet unguent smell of coco flowers in the sweltering Christmas streets, Rowen wished nothing would change. That too was sentimental pap.
On Christmas Eve, when a sense of celebration was palpable in the streets of Asunción, Mango was picked up, roughed up by the same three men who had taken Rowen. He was advised to stay away from the American woman and the traitorous old fart of a fag she hung out with. His face was mashed when he walked into the apartment, and Rowen knew it was her fault.
She was grateful to have the eyes to see the dignity in her lover as he asked her to leave. The dignity was connected to his integrity. She had gotten herself tangled in an old school kind of problem for which there was no digital fix. Fine. Mango was no coward, but he needed to keep a clear space around him in which to do his own work. It was work like his that, sooner or later, was going to bring down the kleptocracy and bring real democracy to the country. All he needed was time and bandwidth. There was too much at stake to risk challenging a bunch of thugs bent on intimidating a famous old artist who specialized in provocation.
Shine on, Future Boy, Rowen wished she could say to him, walking out his door, but could not quite bring herself to it.
She went to Esteban’s. His house was big, there was plenty of room for her. But when she told him what happened to Mango, the story of what had happened to her became part of it, and he was furious.
“I was afraid to tell you,” she admitted. “I thought you would send me away.”
He had been out with friends and looked dapper in dark slacks and a pale yellow cotton shirt, untucked, black loafers without socks. He looked like a man who had just discovered sunshine. Whatever it was animating him, her news killed the buzz.
“Information,” he said.
She did not know how to respond. She was a bucket filling up with chagrin. There was contempt in his explanation, there was ice in the contempt.
“We’re blind, in this maldito país, we feel our way in the dark not knowing where the monsters are. They’re there all right, and they want blood. To stay alive, a person needs information. What you held back from me changes the equation. I should have been told.”
“I’m sorry, Esteban. I’ll go.”
“No, you won’t.”
The housekeeper gave her a room that was a museum. The sculptor had been collecting pre-Colombian art for forty years. His stock of pottery, worked silver, paintings, and statuary was legendary, priceless, unique. He wanted badly to bequeath it to a museum, but they were all porous. In a couple of years, three tops, someone in a position to sell off the Cabañas collection would make himself discreetly rich. Rowen slept alongside a Franciscan Madonna in wood from an altar in a church that no longer existed. There was betrayal in her dream, there was treachery, but it was not clear who sold out whom.
In the morning she took a walk. She wanted to think about Mango, decide how much his ultimatum bothered her. The streets of Asunción on Christmas day were hot, bright, and empty. Even the indigent who gathered at intersections to plead for help had gone someplace else for the day. Rowen’s parents had raised her without religion, and she had a sense now that she lacked a faculty, a mode of perception, that would make sense of the holiday hush.
In the Plaza de los Aturdidos, two sex workers chatted on a bench in the shade. They might be sisters. Not much else going on. She sat on a separate bench, glad to get out of the sun for a moment. The guy approaching her along a wobbling diagonal looked familiar. In fact he wore the same Pizza Hut T-shirt he’d had on the day he supervised her abduction. She ought to run, but her feet were in flip-flops, and he would overtake her instantly. He sat next to her and spoke without looking at her.
“I came to warn you,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
“Catalino. I wanted you to know that something will happen to the old man.”
He shrugged. “That’s not for me to know, that’s for the bosses.”
“That’s not much of a warning.”
“You should stay away from him.”
“He’s my friend,” she said, which was not quite true.
“If you stay away, you won’t get hurt.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
His answer came sideways, which was how she liked them to come.
“Democracy Plaza,” he said.
“What about it?”
“There’s one of his statues there.”
She nodded. The statue he meant was classic Cabañas resistance. It was called Democracy and had become an Asunción landmark. For a while, a picture of it had been Mango’s screensaver. Thinking of Mango again, she let him go.
Catalino told her, “I went there to look at it.”
“And what did you think?”
His shrug was emphatic this time. “No tengo palabra.” He didn’t have words.
“Catalino.” She waited until he looked directly at her. “Here’s what I hope.”
“That someday you have the words you want.”
He could have taken it as yankee condescension but chose to hear something better than that in what she said. “Be careful,” he told her.
She waited until he had disappeared down a side street off the plaza before getting up. She walked back to Esteban’s, the heat prickling her shoulders and the back of her neck, sweat trickling down her side. She had a key of her own now and let herself in. She went noiselessly to the studio and saw what she expected to see. On Christmas day in a semitropical city with a history of repressive government, alone, under threat, possessed of an idea and the oficio to make it real, he was working. He did not notice her come in; she did not want him to notice.
When he stopped for a break she would tell him about Catalino’s warning. But, for a little while, being there was all and everything she wanted. It was still too soon to see what he would make of the stone. It was still a block of potential. She understood there was a possibility he would fail in conception, or in execution; maybe both. He had made her see how hard it was for old to be new. He had also made her see you did not stop trying.
In a few minutes he set down his chisel and hammer and wiped the sweat from his face with a small blue towel. He noticed her. “You.”
“Let’s drink tereré,” he said.
She nodded. She filled the cowhorn with fresh yerba mate. She filled a pitcher with water and ice. She bruised a sprig of mint to release the flavor, and put it into the pitcher. She poured cold water on the tea and handed him the cowhorn. As he took it he studied her with curiosity in which moved no malice, and she knew what he knew. Whatever the speechless stone became, she would be there to see.