Xenolith, Page 9A. Sparrow
Frank saw them off at the launch, a smaller version of the dugout that brought them to San Ignacio, with the same long-screwed outboard motor clamped to the back. A tattered black flag with a white cross flew on its prow – Father Leo’s expeditionary colors, apparently.
The young launch operator and the guide sat in the stern while another boy perched far aft to scout for snags. Father Leo settled shakily in the middle next to Liz, her hair tied up under a wide-brimmed slouch hat.
“Later ‘gator.” Liz gave him a little flick of a wave and a quivery smile, causing a faint and puzzling nausea to billow up in Frank. His face flushed as the launch roared away from the mudflat and arced into the main channel of the glassy river, dappled with puffs of mist and clouds of gnats. Frank waved. Liz dipped her chin, but held onto her hat while an animated Father Leo commanded her attention.
Frank hiked back up to the bungalow, stomach growling for breakfast, but found his hunger was offset by the nagging queasiness. He paused mid-slope, gripped by the realization that he had forgotten to transfer Liz’s licorice from his rucksack. He sighed and continued on. The launch had already rounded the bend, out of sight, the drone of its motor fading.
Two small bananas and an egg sandwich later, Frank came around the sapodilla grove to find the usual line of villagers from Rio Frio and beyond had already collected at the clinic. Alejandro was busily checking them in with the aid of his younger sister, who often volunteered at the clinic whenever she could escape her household chores.
Frank found Itzel still sitting beside her mom in the main ward. Itzel looked scared. Senora Roxita lay limp and blue on clammy sheets, her breath raspy and weak. Her pulse still raced. Her blood pressure had sunk to 70 over 50 – perilously low. And despite an entire night of ventilation, her oxygen levels had barely risen.
The needle on the regulator flirted with the red zone. Frank rummaged around the store room but only found one small bottle of oxygen, barely enough to finish the day.
“Alejandro! I need you!”
His assistant came running.
“I thought we had more of these,” Frank held out the lone bottle.
“No, Doctor,” Alejandro said. “We no keep more than two. We no use so much.”
“We use now,” said Frank. “Listen. We need more. Today. Any way we can get some?”
“Yes. We get from San Ignacio hospital.”
Frank had visited the little hospital in San Ignacio, and its bare bones state of equipping and supply did not fill him with confidence. But there was no time to send Alejandro to the larger hospital in Belmopan.
“Go now. Get as much as they can spare and come straight back.”
“I go in a little bit,” said Alejandro. “I am still checking in the people.”
“No, go now,” said Frank. “Your little sister can finish checking in. I’ll help. We need that oxygen pronto, understand?”
Alejandro grabbed his shoulder bag and rushed off towards the landing. There were always a few launches hanging around, available for hire almost any time of the day.
Frank wondered whether it would have been wiser to simply evacuate Senora Roxita to San Ignacio. What if Alejandro found they had oxygen, but couldn’t convince them to part with any of it? On second thought, all the jostling she would have faced getting her down to the river and up those bumpy roads would not have done her any good. She was better off resting where she was, where Itzel could check on her.
Frank directed his attention to sick call, which proved entirely routine – ankle sprains, headaches, diarrhea – the kinds of things any of his assistants could have handled on their own.
Senora Roxita was touch-and-go all that day, but by late that afternoon, as the antibiotics and diuretics kicked in, her condition began to uptick. Her oxygen ran out just before Alejandro returned with two fresh bottles. With her oxygen saturation in the mid-80s and climbing, and Sister Violetta sitting by the old lady’s bedside, Frank felt confident enough to drag himself back to the bungalow for a nap.
He dreamt of rivers flowing into rivers branching into still more rivers. He awoke as twilight crept over Rio Frio and the smell of wood smoke suggested that Itzel might be back in her kitchen preparing dinner, a good sign, if true. Liz and Father Leo would be returning soon if they hadn’t arrived back already.
Frank ducked into the clinic to find a weak but feisty Senora Roxita arguing with her brother while a gaggle of nieces and nephews looked on. The oximeter read 91%, not wonderful for someone supplementing their breathing with pure oxygen, but at least the trend was positive. Her fever had come down completely. She was over the hump and should only get better here on out. Frank murmured some encouragement to the Senora and her family and excused himself, bounding down the path towards the river.
He made his way out to the outcrop of limestone beyond the mudflat, on the point that separated the clear water of the Rio Frio from the muddy Macal. He stared upriver into an angry sunset and listened for launches. Darkness encroached rapidly. He knew that launch operators didn’t like to be on the river after nightfall because darkness obscured dead falls that lurked half-submerged, and could flip or rip a launch in two.
Most launch operators carried lanterns for emergencies, but most preferred to get the hell off the river after nightfall. A bit of glow remained in the Western sky. Frank prayed for the sweet sound of an outboard motor.
Mosquitoes descended like vampires. Frank stared upriver, slapping at the unseen marauders, struggling to expunge demons of pessimism from his thoughts. Something akin to insanity began to bubble up in him.
An hour later, in complete darkness, Frank bounded back up the path to the mission to fetch a flashlight and grab a bite to eat. Maybe they decided to wait till morning to return, or were drifting unpowered to be safe from snags. No reason to assume their delay was caused by anything less mundane.
After a frantic dinner of stale bread and cold ham, he had a brief look-in on Senora Roxita, and went back to the river. Alejandro joined him. They paced the mud flat to stay one step ahead of the swarming mosquitoes.
“We have extra radios,” said Frank. “Why didn’t Father Leo take a radio with him?
“He took,” said Alejandro. “But I tell him the other day, the batteries, they no good. He must have forget.”
“Did they bring a tent or anything?”
“No. Father Leo, he say no need. Because they come back same day.”
Another hour passed. Frank sent Alejandro home to his family.
“No worry Doctor Frank,” Alejandro said as he left. “The one who is bringing them is a good boat man. He knows the river. Even in the dark.”
The river grew darker and lost its sheen. The little bit of starlight that had given its gloss had been swallowed up by a creeping overcast. Reluctantly, Frank returned to the mission. He found Senora Roxita snoring peacefully with Itzel hunched over on a chair, head resting by her mom’s hip, her mom’s hand resting on her hair.
Frank burst through the door of the bungalow and lay down on the chaise. He tried to sleep but his eyes felt as if they were pinned open. He tried reading, but the words evaded him. He found himself repeating the same sentences over and over.
He imagined Liz huddled in the launch, believing every snort of tapir in the underbrush to be a jaguar. Frank slid off the chaise, grabbed a kerosene lantern and shot back out the screen door, heading back to the river yet again.
The Macal slithered by in the night as dark and oily as an anaconda. Frank made straight for the dugouts strewn across the landing. The first one he tipped over had a splintered bow and teemed with snap jaw ants that were busy reclaiming its punky wood into loam. He found one small but river worthy, large enough for two. To whom it belonged, he didn’t care. He would worry about reparations later.
Frank put the lantern in the prow, pushed in, and climbed aboard. The current felt stronger than it had looked and he made slow progress paddling against it.
iver of dark thoughts poured through his imagination – faceless attackers, horrific scenarios of abduction, rape and murder, in some Father Leo a victim, in others a perpetrator.
Frank dwelled on the devil that he knew – Father Leo. He revisited the old priest’s teas in memory, poring over the minutia of his interactions with Liz, his risqué jokes and innuendos, the way his eyes lasered in on her and only her as if Frank wasn’t even standing by her side. Being practically alone with her in a wilderness, could the temptation have grown too great?
Of course, that was preposterous. First, Liz was lanky and strong – naturally athletic. No way could this gimpy, attenuated elder overpower her. And besides, this was a Catholic priest pushing seventy, crusty yes, but loved and trusted by his parish. He had nothing untoward in his record.
And how could Father Leo not pay attention to Liz? She had a quirky wit that made people laugh, open up, not that Father Leo needed any encouragement. He had a lifetime of reminiscences to report and a new and captive audience to hear them – a pretty girl to boot. Frank was a bump on a log by comparison, master of non sequitur and shop talk. It was no wonder Father Leo homed in on Liz.
Frank grunted and shook his head, as if the shaking could make his worry-charged delusions fall away.
He worked up a lather paddling against the current. How far had they gone upriver? Frank hadn’t even thought to ask. If they had pulled over to camp he might go right past them without knowing. A rational person would have returned to the mission, gotten some rest, and hired another launch in the morning.
Frank imagined Liz huddled under the canopy of the launch, terrified by the noises in the bush, seeking comfort from Father Leo, or perhaps, one of the young men. Frank continued upstream, paddling harder.
Frank entered a deep, slow stretch where the river separated into several braids separated by eyots. The weak lantern glow made it difficult to locate the main channel. Frank chose one at random, but guessed wrong, entering an incipient oxbow, stagnant and rank.
As he turned the dugout around, a tangle of partly submerged branches, like bony hands, seized its hull. Frank scraped free only to be snatched again. An eddy swirling out of the main flow pivoted him into a clutter of low-handing boughs and creepers that scraped and plucked at him.
Thunk! The dugout wedged solidly over the bark-less bole of a sunken tree. He couldn’t find purchase on the slick surface to push off with his paddle. He stepped out onto the log, slipping on an algal film as slick as ice. His legs kicked out and knocked the dugout loose. He went under, hooking his ankle in the crook of limb. He floundered in the tangles, struggling to keep his face above water. He thrashed until he snapped free of the slimy branches and swam after the drifting dugout.
The current took hold of both Frank and the dugout, whisking them into the main channel. Frank kicked off his sandals and pursued the orange glow of the lantern, narrowing the gap until he was close enough to lunge and grab the trailing hitch. He pulled himself close enough to swing a leg over and tried to pulling himself in with his elbow. The dugout flipped, spilling the paddles, snuffing the lantern, leaving him in the black.
Frank clambered onto the overturned dugout. Defeated, he sprawled over its mucid, worm-eaten bottom, legs trailing in the water. He drifted, gazing into blackness, not bothering to slap at mosquitoes, letting them take what they wished of his blood. Small creatures scraped and nibbled at his feet. Frank did not kick them away. When the dugout lodged against the bank, he did not free it.
Objects floated past, some bumping him, some gurgling as they bobbed. His mind’s eye conjured corpses and beasts and things beyond nature. He endured until a sliver of moon rose like a mocking grin and gave texture to the thinning clouds. Stars reappeared in time to fade and blink out. Hills revealed their form, silhouetted by a sun not yet risen.
Only then did he right the dugout and bail it with scoops fashioned from large, folded-over leaves. He pushed out into the current, intending to float back to the mission. As he drifted around the first bend, the purr of a launch sounded upriver. Tingling warmth swept through his skin, supplanting the chill of a night in the open. Waves of hope and relief splashed over him and replaced his despair like spring water flushing a bilge. He had been a fool for expecting the worst. Frank swung the dugout around so it pointed upstream.
The launch roared around the bend with Father Leo’s colors flying from its bow. Frank smoothed his hair and picked bit of debris off his face. How would he explain the stolen dugout? He didn’t want Liz to know the extent of his panic.
He stood up and waved as they approached, squinting, trying to spot Liz under the canopy. He saw only the operator manning the outboard and the spotter atop the risen bow. No guide. No Father Leo. No Liz. Frank’s insides roiled. The chill returned.
The launch cut its motor and veered towards the dugout. Its bow descended. The operator recognized Frank. His eyes flickered. His mouth dropped open.
“Where are they?” said Frank. A hollow opened in his depths and grew and grew until he was made a mere husk.
The young man could find no words.
“Donde estan?” said Frank, voice catching in his swelling throat. Despair came flooding back in a torrent that robbed his breath and snuffed his flickering hopes.
“They no come,” said the boy in the bow.