The Storyteller

I wanted to showcase some of my personas’ fiction. This story is magic realism, from the pen of Gervasio Arrancado. Click the link to read Gervasio’s bio and another of his short stories. Enjoy.

The cantina in Agua Rocosa was the usual thick-walled adobe building, dimly lighted through small, deep, open windows on three sides. There was one window on either side of the only door, which opened to the east. There were two more windows on each wall.

The bar, a heavy wooden affair topped with burnished mesquite, ran along much of the west wall. To the north end of it a single wooden door with a simple wooden latch opened into small back room. The proprietor and bartender, Juan-Carlos Salazár, used the back room for storage, and his wife, Ofelia, sometimes used it as a makeshift office.

There was no rear exit from the cantina, except one that might be used in times of dire emergency by persons much smaller than Juan-Carlos. That exit had begun as a small drainage hole near the back corner of the storage room. But according to Juan-Carlos, a certain older gentleman from a nearby village had engaged a few delinquent youngsters to enlarge it over a period of a month or two. Soon it was large enough so that a thin-shouldered boy of thirteen or so could successfully wriggle through and procure an occasional bottle of tequila for a five-finger discount.

The boy and the bottle would disappear back to the home of the old gentleman, where both of them would be paid handsomely: the boy with a few coins, and the old gentleman with the finest tequila he could procure at no cost.

Juan-Carlos put his hands in the air. “What can I do?” he said more often than necessary to his most trusted paying customers. “The old gentleman really is harmless, and he takes a bottle only every month or thereabouts. Oh, and did you know his woman is a witch?” For no reason at all he crossed himself.

Then he wiped at an imaginary stain on the bar with a rag. The creases in the rag were permanent. It had stiffened with the soiled oil of his hands as the moisture had siphoned from it during repeated use. “Certainly I shouldn’t deny the harmless old gentleman his pleasure, which he derives not only from drinking my tequila but also, perhaps even more so, from the manner in which it is obtained.”

He paused, put the back of his hand alongside his mouth and leaned toward the two men on the other side of the bar. “Although he could well afford to purchase it from me or even open his own cantina and stock it with much better spirits than I have ever been able to serve here.”

Catching a signal in his peripheral vision, he glanced down the bar, then yelled over his shoulder, “Ofelia, can you come help with the bar?”

There was no response.

He turned back to his attentive audience. “I’ll be back in a moment to continue the story, if you will excuse me.” He wandered off to pour a glass for the customer who had motioned for him, then sat the bottle on the bar so he would not be interrupted so soon again.

While Juan-Carlos was gone, Javier, a young vaquero from a horse ranch just up the coast, nudged the young gringo standing next to him at the bar and grinned. “It is a very good thing that Juan-Carlos is given to story telling. Otherwise he might have to admit to drinking his profits himself.”

The other man was not from Agua Rocosa. He was a norteamericano who had come on the bus that morning. The day was so hot that even in his khaki trousers, slip-on loafers and white linen shirt, he had parched instantly.

Even before coming into the cantina for some quick relief, he had felt compelled to stay in the village for a few days. Once the cool Negra Modelo had crossed his lips, he had experienced two epiphanies. The first was that few things are better than the luxury of a Negra Modelo and lime on a scalding hot day. The second was that the business he had come to conduct farther to the south suddenly wasn’t nearly as important as sitting in this bar enjoying himself with his new compañeros.

He looked at Javier, his eyes wide. “Do you really think so?”

Javier simply stared at him for a moment, a slight frown on his face. Then he slapped him on the back and broke into raucous laughter. “Do I think so?” As Juan-Carlos was on his way back, he leaned closer. “For a moment I didn’t realize you were joking, mi amigo. But of course, you smelled his pickled-worm breath for yourself.” Still grinning, he shook his head. “Do I think so.”

Juan-Carlos saw that the two men were talking and passed them by to attend to customers at a few tables on the floor.

Javier poured himself another shot of tequila and downed it, then took a swig of his Leon. “Como se llama, mi amigo nuevo? What’s your name, my new friend?”

The young man straightened and proffered his hand. “Oh, I’m Charlie… Charlie Task.”

“Oh sí… Charlie.” Javier nodded. “It iss a good name.”

“So what about the drainage in the back? I mean, the hole, the drainage hole. Why would the boys expand it if they weren’t coming in to procure tequila for their elderly friend?”

Javier looked at him for a long moment, then shrugged and sipped his beer. “Who knows? Perhaps it was not boys at all.” He waved one hand vaguely about. “This is a very old establishment.

“Perhaps the sun, parched and dry as it must be, enlarged the hole a bit to gain entry to some refreshment.

“Perhaps the wind, blowing as it does constantly, became thirsty in its passing. It passes right by here, you know. Surely all that tequila must be an attractive nuisance.

“Perhaps even the water itself, when it rains or when a big storm comes from the sea, was jealous of the bottled nectar.

“Perhaps all three conspired to enlarge the hole, the sun and wind in hopes of quenching their thirst and the water hoping to blend the nectar of the agave plant with the heady flavors of the sea.”

Charlie was rapt with attention, though he occasionally glanced past Javier’s shoulder to track the bartender’s progress.

Javier continued, motioning with his cerveza. “I have heard of that process—the sun and the wind and the water combining to wear down even large, heavy fortifications—although I have never seen it in action myself. I think it would take a while longer than I can spare to watch, and I don’t know that I would want to witness its secrets anyway. It sounds something like magic to me.

“But if they could do that—if the wind, water and sun could conspire to wear down even a strong fortress to low, crumbled ruins—how much less difficult would it be for them to enlarge a hole where there shouldn’t have been one in the first place? Not hard, I think.”

He shrugged, then laughed. “And maybe it was the boys after all. Maybe they did it for the old gentleman, or maybe for themselves. I think it doesn’t matter. For Juan-Carlos, it is enough that the story exists and that he is blessed to tell it.

“I promise you, he cares more about stories and their telling than he cares even for his own tequila. And for me, it matters only as an enjoyable way to pass the time on a hot day with a cold cerveza.”

He poured and drained another shot of tequila, then took another swig of his beer.

Charlie raised his Negra Modelo. “To the stories then.”

Javier grinned as his Leon bottle clinked against Charlie’s Negra Modelo. “A las historias y nuevos amigos. To the stories and new friends.”

Juan-Carlos was back with a tray full of empty bottles and a few glasses.

He moved past the two men as they toasted, set the tray on the bar, then dipped two empty glasses behind the bar into a container of tepid water, upon the surface of which a soapy rainbow was floating. He withdrew them and dipped them into the next container, this one of rinse water, upon the surface of which were the beginnings of its own rainbow.

It is well known in certain circles that glass is a conductor of magic from one place to another, especially for rainbows and other visual effects. He set the glasses on a relatively clean bar towel and looked up. “That sounds like an excellent toast: to the stories, was it?”

Javier nodded. “Sí, sí. A las historias, a nuevos amigos, y al narrador. For without the storyteller, the stories would not be told.” He raised his bottle toward Juan-Carlos and nodded.

Juan-Carlos quickly dunked two more glasses, rinsed them and set them on the towel. He dried his hands on the large dirty spot on his otherwise white apron. “That earns you a cerveza on the house, my friend.”

He grinned, reached into the large cooler beneath the bar and withdrew two Leons. He opened both and sat one in front of Javier, then raised the other. “Gracias, mi amigo.” He glanced at Charlie. “Y tu, mi amigo. And when you are ready for another Negra Modelo, it is on me. And speaking of the stories, do you remember where I left off?”

Javier shrugged. “It was a good story, but I don’t remember.”

Charlie snapped his fingers. “The old gentleman. You were just saying, in strictest confidence of course, that if he wanted to, the old gentleman could even open his own cantina.”

Juan-Carlos nodded. “That’s right. He certainly has plenty of money, judging by the way he goes around in the finest suits and his woman always in the latest fashions.”

He sighed, then lowered his voice and leaned closer to his audience of two. “And you know, nobody knows or remembers where the old gentleman attained such wealth… or else they have forgotten as a matter of convenience.”

He reached to wipe at the same imaginary spot he’d eradicated earlier. “Anyway, I think perhaps enduring the relatively minor inconvenience of ‘misplacing’ a bottle of tequila every couple of weeks is preferable to denying the old gentleman his pleasure. And did I mention that his woman is a witch?”

He paused and crossed himself, then spread his arms, palms out, the stiff rag still dangling from one hand. “What if I filled in that drainage hole all at one time and then discover one morning that the contents of all my casks and bottles have magically spoiled, having received the full blunt of a spell or curse? How would that be good for what little business I have in my poor little cantina?”

He wiped the spot on the bar again. “I tell you, it would be no good at all.” He tapped his temple with one finger. “We thinking men must consider everything—not only our business and how to keep it, but how to avoid upsetting any witches or other supernatural beings who might be about.”

Upon hearing the words “supernatural beings” a few other locals sidled up alongside the young vaquero and the gringo, who had endured the best telling up to that time of what would eventually come to be known among the town’s jokesters as “The Tale of the Disappearing Tequila.”

Since an audience had gathered, Juan-Carlos lined up glasses and set two bottles of tequila on the bar. This was the really good stuff so, being a thinking man, he announced with a grandiose swing of his arms, “After each of you have only six drinks—no no, only five,” and he held up one hand to splay his fingers and thumb, “the rest are half price!”

Everyone applauded his generosity, even though many realized none of them probably would make it past four drinks of the potent worm-driven stuff, much less five. Still, they were courteous and would allow him his moment of false generosity, if only to prove they were more generous than he.

With that, the bartender swung his arms wide in a gesture of welcome. “I have a story for you. This is perhaps the greatest story ever told in Agua Rocosa. It is about a man who, having never been seen in the region before, suddenly rose up from the mud plain just to the north of town.”

He lay one hand over the center of his chest. “And I was honored and humbled to be among the small crowd who witnessed his emergence that day.” He paused and looked along the line of attentive listeners, then wagged one index finger in the air. “Ah, but first you must hear about the rain, for as is the way of such things, it preceded the mud plain.”

The gringo Charlie, not wanting to make waves as the newest friend at the bar, only donned a slight frown. It was the kind that might appear on the face of a man who believes he is being bamboozled.

Next to him, Javier said, “But the man who rose from the mud, let us have that one first.”

A few of the other men along the bar murmured their approval.

Juan-Carlos slung his towel over his shoulder and shook his head slightly, as if about to address a wayward child. Again he scanned the line of men at the bar. “My friends, I am the storyteller, charged by all of you and even nature itself to record and convey the stories. The arrival of the man of mud is perhaps the most important event that ever happened in Agua Rocosa.”

He shrugged. “As such, and as the responsibility for the stories falls to me, I believe the story of the man of mud is deserving of a solid foundation on which it can stand, proudly showcased.”

He looked at Javier again and his voice grew quiet, although still loud enough for the other men to hear, especially since they were leaning forward and breathing silently, without disturbing the air. “It is part of the craft of the storyteller to know that sometimes—sometimes, my friends—the stories swirl in together, like tears and laughter stirred into cream.

Sometimes they are even lost altogether in the swirl. But we are fortunate today, for these stories, the one I am about to tell and the story of the man of mud, stack one upon the other, building in importance. In time I will say the story about the mud man, but first I must lay the foundation.” Again he lay one hand over the center of his chest. “It is my duty.”

Charlie smiled, took a long swig of his beer and settled his mind for the coming story.

Juan-Carlos said, “My friends, you are here for a story. This is the tale of the wind and the rain, odd bird behavior and the boarding house.”

A few of the men, including Javier, nodded, indicating their tacit approval.

“Several decades ago, back when I was only a very small boy and you were not even a glimmer of lust in your father’s eyes, on an otherwise beautiful morning, an overpowering sense of grief washed ashore from the sea and covered the land.

“The skies, angered at having witnessed the involuntary influx of such sorrow, turned grey and then brown and then suddenly very dark.

“My friends, this was not the usual darkness of low, dark clouds stretching to all the horizons, but a special strong kind of darkness, with a tired, melancholy sadness and even anger about it.

“As we humans tried to get out of bed in the morning, we slogged through the weary oppression seeping from those skies, seeming almost to have to swim up from sleep, even though it hadn’t begun raining yet.

“Still, the gloom permeated all of the air, and it almost forced even the youngest, most carefree among us to scurry back beneath the covers.

“For days the massive clouds rippled and boiled like black chili simmering over a low fire for a very long time. The cattle and horses lay in the field and in the stalls, listless, and even the snails and mud turtles withdrew into the dark confines of their houses, which certainly must have contained a less-despondent air than was outside. The cacti and other plants, even the trees, sagged as if filled with despair.

“And it wasn’t only the actors on the stage whose spirits waned, but the spirit of the stage itself. Those low, dark clouds grumbled among themselves, as if debating whether to scour the whole area and be done with it. Or, perhaps, to withhold the replenishment of water from the sea itself in retaliation for the grief it had brought to the land.

“The sun, embarrassed with its inability to push away the sadness and suddenly caught up in its own ego, crossed its arms and sat back, pretending it was in charge.

“I listened closely in those days, eager as I was to learn all I could, and I swear I heard the sun announce that it would refuse to break the clouds’ blockade from one day to the next, just as if that’s what it truly wanted.”

Juan-Carlos leaned forward over the bar. “At least that’s what it sounded like it said. With its usually bright, cheery voice saddened and muffled by the clouds, it was difficult to be sure.”

He sighed and straightened. “In any case, we never saw even the glimmer of an attempt on its part to penetrate the clouds or the gloom that filled the world beneath them. Of course, as you might imagine if you’ve ever been embarrassed with a failure while trying to impress someone, any attempt that failed would have served only to prove that it was not up to the task.

“And the wind….” He flipped his bar towel over his shoulder and sighed. “Ah, the wind, which had traced the same route since the beginning of time, rushing from the sea to the mountains in the morning and from the mountains back to the sea in the evening, for the first time in eternity it seemed confused about which direction to go. Perhaps with the overcast there was so little difference between morning and evening, and even between day and night.

“Instead of rushing along in the dark, the wind loitered timidly among the rocks and trees, afraid to rush off confidently in one direction for fear it might plunge off the very earth itself and be lost. Scraping around among the rocks and trees, all of whom were also variously sad or angry or, at the least, confused and wondering what was going on, it manufactured a sorrowful sound, as if worrying aloud at the possibility of being trapped among those rocks and trees forever.

“And you know, some of it was trapped there even when that dreadful week ended. To this day, when you walk among the rocks and trees on the lower slopes of the mountains above the village, you will hear remnants of that frightened windsong and feel nervous bits of it tugging at the cuffs of your trousers and the sleeves of your shirt.”

He shook his head again. “It was a dark, troubled time. And then, on the evening of the first day, having apparently decided to wash the grief from the air with electricity and rinse it with water, the black, roiling clouds released lightning bolts that seemed to split the very heavens, thunder that sent even the most vicious dogs into hiding, and a torrent of rain.

“But it was a very unusual torrent. It was composed of the massive raindrops that you see in a sudden, short-lived downpour, the sort that occurs when a gigantic container that has the appearance of a cloud but carries far more liquid than any cloud could carry suddenly bursts and drops the entire load all at one time and all in one place.

“You know the kind of downpour I mean: it lasts only a half-hour and is soaked immediately into the thirsty earth, yet it drowns even frogs and fish in its passing. Like the raindrops in that kind of downpour, the smaller of these raindrops were an inch across. Most were much larger.

“And it began all at once—again, as in the kind of downpour with which we’re all familiar—but it kept coming and coming and coming for the whole week. And instead of falling all in one place, it fell everywhere.

“Now, as you might well imagine from the size of those drops, there was very little space between them, and they cleared the skies completely of birds and bats and flying insects within moments after the rain began.

“The larger birds—say generally anything larger than a kestrel—that needed to get from one place to another simply walked, their wings held aloft as a kind of umbrella, no doubt wearing a visage of disgust that only a bird, with its fixed beak and those little beady eyes, could express.

“The smaller birds—all kinds of sparrows and wrens and even the smaller owls—found a place to hide and latched on for fear of being washed away. And the bats… well, we all know they stayed safe and dry in the upper reaches of wherever they were hanging when the rain began.

“Well, after a long week of that kind of rain—”

“What about the insects?” The question came in the scratchy voice of the thin, bespectacled Ernesto at the end of the bar.

Juan-Carlos looked at him. “¿Qué?

Ernesto’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “The insects—what about them?”

At five feet and seven inches, Ernesto weighed less than 110 pounds. His eyes appeared to bulge behind the thick glasses balanced on his thin, hooked nose. His leathery skin appeared to have been stretched over his narrow chin and his high, sharp cheekbones.

That plus his thin, long, antennae-like moustache and his spindly arms and legs perhaps belied a greater than usual appreciation for our six-legged friends. “You said the larger birds scowled and stomped through the streets, and that the smaller birds and the bats remained hidden, but what about the insects?”

Juan-Carlos nodded. “Ah, of course, of course. Gracias, Ernesto.”

He turned back to the others. “Yes, yes, the insects. My friends, I can tell you there were no bugs anywhere: none flying in the air, none crawling or hopping along on the ground or in the trees. Not even grasshoppers jumping on screen doors to annoy the people in their houses. If I had to make excuses for them, I would say they didn’t want to run the risk of encountering those angry, larger birds who were stomping around the village looking for something on which they could take out their frustration and their sore feet.”

The small group of men joined Juan-Carlos in healthy laughter for a moment.

When it died down, he resumed the serious tone with which he’d conveyed the earlier part of the story. “And so it went, the rain coming down in sheets, twenty-four hours a day without a single break for a solid week.

“In that week alone, the few trees we have in the village and the surrounding area, having shaken off their despondency with the coming of the rain, grew an average of two feet, and those few folks who had the foresight to plant a few seeds saw the plants sprout, come to majority, produce vegetables and die off. All in that one week!

“I mentioned earlier that I was only a child, but I would bet those people and those in their good graces ate very well for the next month or so.”

A couple of the men snickered and shook their heads.

Juan-Carlos raised both hands. “I know, I know. This story is less believable than most you hear in my poor little cantina, but consider, I do not charge a fee. I tell them only because they must be told.”

He topped off a few of the men’s glasses and set a couple more beers on the bar. “At any rate, I am too honest to ask you to believe me. When you travel again to the capital, you can check the records for yourself.

“Botanists and other agriculture types came from the university to study the phenomenon, and they took their recorded results back to the capital.” A glimmer crept into his eyes. “And many of them stayed right here in the village.”

José, who owned a small fishing fleet and usually sat alone at a table in the back corner of the cantina to conduct his business, was sitting at the bar on the end opposite Ernesto. He took the bait. “Who did they stay with? Maybe those who put them up could fill in more of the story.”

Juan-Carlos wiped at the imaginary spot on the bar again. “Yes, yes. Let’s see. Do any of you remember the small lodging house just at the north end of the village? It was the only all-wooden structure in the village for a very long time.”

The men all shook their heads, as Juan-Carlos knew they would.

“Ah, well, the woman who ran that boarding house was very old even then, and as I’ve mentioned, I was only a very young boy. Of course, I was old enough to know numbers and amounts, and I remember that she must have made very good money that week. All six rooms at her place were filled with all the scientists and other important people who came from the capital to study the phenomenon.

In fact, I delivered some borrowed blankets to the boarding house, and I saw with my own eyes that she put the visitors three to a room, with two sleeping head to toe in the same bed and the third sleeping on a pallet on the floor.”

He stopped, sighed, and seemed disheartened for a moment. “Unfortunately, just as if it were our fault that we’d received an overabundance of rain, we had no rain at all the whole next summer.

“In fact, the sun and wind actually seemed to deduct moisture from us as restitution to whomever is in charge of rainfall. Each day was hotter and drier than the last, and one scalding afternoon that boarding house burst into flame.

“And do you know, because both the structure and the old woman inside had been leached so thoroughly of moisture, the whole thing burned to the ground and blew away in the wind.” He snapped his fingers. “It was over just that quick. It was gone before the men could find a bucket or any water to carry in it.”

A few men laughed quietly and shook their heads.

Juan-Carlos seemed to take offense. He pointed his finger at them. “You laugh, and I understand—I really do—but I have proof, my friends. Tomorrow—but please come in the coolness of the morning—meet me here and I’ll walk with you to the former location of the lodging house.

“And there, even if you get on your hands and knees with a glass that makes an ant look the size of a horse, you will see for yourself with your very own eyes that not so much as a trace of that boarding house remains.” He nodded and put one hand on his chest. “I will do that for you because you are my friends and I want you to know you can trust me.”

The men had stopped laughing, though a couple were still grinning as they suddenly found their boots of great interest.

* * * * * * *