Xenolith, Page 2A. Sparrow
Chapter 2: Pilgrimage
One day earlier …
Pools among the reeds flashed like signal mirrors as the bus sped past the marshes. Ahead, the road took flight, slashing into the misty blue foothills of the Maya Mountains. The window batted Frank’s temple through the crumpled bandanna he employed as a pillow. A day into his pilgrimage, jet lag had finally overtaken his double espressos. He rubbed parched eyes, retreated behind their lids. Soon, he sifted into recesses impervious to light, where not even the din of the chicken bus could reach.
He slipped inside a familiar dream space, once nightmarish but now almost cozy, the way a prison cell might become to a lifer. A rickety chair and a wobbly table perched on a concrete slab at the café and guesthouse he knew to be the Scarlet Macaw in San Ignacio. Long shuttered, it existed now only in memory.
Frank’s dream blended a Belizean sunset with a midsummer’s eve in upstate New York. Sultry breezes blew in from jungled hills across a river. Katydids creaked from overhanging branches with finely filigreed leaves. Winged termites as big as dragonflies harried a bare light bulb. The perfume of rubber trees and fresh-cut hay permeated all.
He waited for Liz, or for whatever shards and wisps of her his brain could still conjure. With instincts honed by endless iteration and error, he hovered lightly in dream thrall, emotions subdued, attention unfocussed. How delicate the spell that summoned this recurrent dream and how easily it could crumble, cursing him awake into the hellish void of an empty bed.
She arrived with the tinkle of a spoon in a teacup. As usual, her face eluded him, as if he were viewing her through a camera with a broken auto-focus. This never failed to frustrate him. He had gazed at her dog-eared photos often enough to etch her image indelibly in his waking mind, yet in dreams she always presented as an irresolvable blur.
Her voice, however, came through in pure fidelity, liquid vowels preserved like the toll of an ancient bell. Too bad she spoke only gibberish; a white noise of non sequitur and small talk. This Liz was a pale facsimile of the one he loved, a faded picture in a locket, no more than a keepsake. He found his lips struggling, nonetheless, to form the questions that ritual demanded.
What happened up the Macal River? Who or what took you and kept you but left no trace?
He moaned and writhed, head bobbing like a skiff in a squall, the words tangling in his throat. His temple slammed into the window frame. The dream spell shattered in a corona of pain. Eyelids snapped open like shades. Midday glare blazed through retinas. Punta music blared past synaptic barriers molten by consciousness.
Dumped back into the hubbub of the bus, he slammed his eyes shut, longing to be back at that table with Liz. He searched for a path back to the dream, straining to reconstruct its sensations from scraps that lingered.
Failing, he opened his eyes and found the bus on a collision course with a tanker that had taken over its lane. The tanker struggled to overtake a tandem trailer but couldn’t muster enough oomph to pass. Three sets of truck horns blared and bleated in a queer harmony.
Frank yawned, more from fatigue than boredom, though such maneuvers were de rigueur on the Western Highway or, for that matter, any two lane highway in a developing country. Over time, he had learned not to over-react – bad for the heart. Somehow, the standoff would resolve favorably. And if not …?
The bus driver was in a real pickle. Queues returning from Saturday market blocked an easy escape to the shoulder. As the angular carapace of the tanker bore down, he found a gap in the throng, veered off the road and stood hard on the brakes, alternately cursing and praying. Panicked market-goers scrambled off the shoulder and leapt across a ditch. The bus shimmied and rattled over the pitted shoulder, clipping a wheelbarrow, spilling its load of peppers.
As the bus skidded to a halt, luggage tumbled from the overhead racks and slid down the aisle. Standers stumbled or fell. A guitar splintered and twanged its last discordant chord.
People climbed over each other, retrieving wayward boxes and suitcases. Across the aisle, a teenage boy extricated his sandaled foot from the ribs of a guitar someone had been holding upright in the aisle.
“So sorry, sir!” said the teen. “I can give you money to fix it.”
The man who owned the guitar waved the boy off. Calmly, he picked bits of wood off the floor and dropped them in the sound hole. Frank’s eyes lingered on this man. Something about his face stood out, even amidst all the trekkers and reformed Mennonites and the already eclectic locals. Large eyes set wide nestled deep in thick, crescent folds. His nose sat too high, looked too small for his face, like a lump of clay placed and shaped by a novice sculptor. He had wavy, black hair flecked with white patches like whitecaps on a windy lake.
Frank stood up and checked the bundle of sweet peas he had picked up from the florist in Bethesda the day before, Sheathed in paper and cushioned with bubble wrap, each stem sipped from its own tube of citrate and preservative. Their spicy, powdery scent remained strong and so far they had kept crisp, though it didn’t matter if they wilted. They would likely end up as forage for tapirs and snails anyway. All that mattered was that they were sweet peas. Liz had always loved sweet peas.
Frank looked up and down the aisle. “I’m a doctor,” he called. “Anyone hurt? Need help?” He wasn’t equipped to handle much but he had a small first aid kit in his day-pack and a larger bag in his luggage. He scanned his fellow riders, found people wincing, rubbing elbows, pressing hands to foreheads – nothing serious as far as he could tell, not that anyone would tell him. The array of blank and blinking faces pretty much ignored his offer.
“Anyone needs help, let me know. I’m a doctor. Really. No joke.”
Frank wobbled back to his seat, stepping around a man scooping rice and grit back into a sack. The bus ground through its gears and lurched back onto the road.
Being ignored or dismissed like that bugged him, but it was nothing new. People had always had a hard time believing he possessed an MD. He couldn’t imagine why. Doctors these days came in all genders, shapes and colors. Somehow, Frank Bowen managed to stray beyond the tails of the distribution. Some patients even refused to let him examine them.
Maybe it was the way he couldn’t keep his shirt-tails tucked, or the crude vernacular he retained from a boyhood spent on the fringes of South Boston. Encroaching middle age only exacerbated the impression that he belonged to one of the rougher trades. His doughy face had grown coarser, his thick torso thicker. Did a monkey wrench look more natural in his stubby fingers than a stethoscope?
Even in Belize? Or was it especially in Belize? Maybe the Belizeans wondered what sort of doctor would ride a cut-rate chicken bus from Belize City to San Ignacio? Perhaps they thought any MD worth his or her shingle should have a driver and an air-conditioned SUV?
He could have easily hired a car. He also could have afforded a much nicer hotel than that mildewed guest house on a seedy side street echoing with the drone of motorbikes. But this was no vacation. Not only were comfort and convenience not his goals, they conflicted with the object of his trip. He had come to Belize as a memory pilgrim, seeking to re-experience Belize the way he and Liz did when they arrived together almost twenty years ago. He couldn’t replicate every mishap or serendipity, but he could try his best to follow in the echoes of their footsteps.
That morning, Belize City obliged, offering a mise-en-scene uncannily reminiscent of their first day together in a new country. The sun, like then, slashed obliquely through the blue haze of cook smoke. Jerked chicken roasted on skewers. Stacks of papayas and onions lined the sidewalks. Women gossiped in a patois so thick that Liz mistook it for French. As he turned the corner into the same bus depot, he could almost feel Liz holding his hand.
Belize conjured Liz for him dependably. Like a drug. No other place came close to replicating the sense of being with her. Not even Ithaca, where they began their time together. And certainly not Somalia, Colombia or Congo – places where he had worked, post-Liz, for a string of
NGOs and oil companies. Only Belize could make Liz’s long, cool fingers curl lightly over his as he ambled down its shattered sidewalks.