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Xenolith, Page 4

A. Sparrow


  A white Toyota Land Cruiser with a CRS logo showed up at the guest house the next morning. Frank had been telling her not to expect the driver to show up on time, but in fact, he arrived early. With her smile restrained but broad, she strode straight for the front door and got in before the driver could hustle over to open it for her. Frank helped load the suitcases and climbed in back.

  They rode out of town across the river and over a hill, passing several small farms and a scattering of weather-worn, but tidy-looking houses. A few minutes out of San Ignacio, the Land Cruiser veered off the main road onto a narrow, dirt track that led back down to the river. He rolled to a stop in a dirt patch under a tree with sprawling horizontal limbs that seemed to defy gravity.

  “Why are we stopping here?” said Liz. “So soon?”

  The driver stepped out. “Road to Rio Frio no good,” he said. “Rain wash out. You must take boat.”

  Liz looked alarmed. “You mean … Rio Frio is not accessible by road?”

  “No madam. Not since last year. And they no fix.” The driver opened the back of the Land Cruiser and unloaded their bags onto the red dust.

  “Were you aware of this, Frank?” she said, with scolding eyes.

  “I had no clue,” said Frank.

  “When will it be fixed?” she asked the driver, hopeful.

  “They no fix, madam. No more. It wash out too much.”


  “Nebber,” said the driver, as he helped Frank transfer the luggage into a canopied dugout.

  “There’re only these … canoes?” The prospect of being linked to civilization by water alone seemed to knock her off kilter. She stood in the dirt patch staring at the moored launches.

  “It’s not a canoe Liz. It’s a launch. They’re pretty stable and strong.”

  She climbed in only after the boat was fully loaded and everyone stared at her standing alone on the bank. She sat near the prow, then stood abruptly and moved back, her face twisted in disgust.

  “What’s wrong?” said Frank, redistributing their luggage to correct a list to port.

  “Pig shit,” she said, removing her sandal and swiping it through the water.

  The operator had trouble starting the engine and had to prime it with a mouthful of petrol siphoned from a jerry can. Soon it puttered to life in a cloud of blue smoke, the prow lifted and they roared away from the dock.

  With two bends of the river, all civilization disappeared. The diffuse outskirts of San Ignacio gave way to green walls of jungle that hung over the water. They passed an occasional clearing with a thatched hut up on posts, but most of the shore passed for wilderness.

  Frank, awed by the surroundings, suppressed his excitement because he could tell it wasn’t shared. Liz looked like someone waiting for a dentist.

  She caught him staring. “Why are you gawking at me?”

  “Just curious … what you’re thinking. Anything like you expected?”

  A pause pregnant with calculation ensued.

  “Yes, of course,” she said. “And more. How about you? Is it what you expected?”

  “No,” said Frank, immediately, treating her query like a bear trap. “I expected a road. And a town.”

  After an hour of winding travel, through slow deeps and shallow riffles, past broad swaths of marsh, the launch powered down at a confluence with a smaller river. The prow descended and they turned towards a mudflat loaded with overturned canoes. It fringed a stubbled clearing with a path climbing a tall bank to the top of a sandy shelf.

  A bald man prowled the flat, a gaggle of children schooling around him like pilot fish. An over-sized guayabera billowed in the breeze, revealing the contours of his paunch. He wore horn-rimmed sunglasses. Several days’ worth of stubble bristled his chin.

  “Well, well, I hope it really is the Bowens this time and not tourists come to see an authentic Mayan village.”

  “We are,” said Frank, stumbling out of the launch. “Bowens, I mean. Well … I am, anyway. Liz kept her maiden name. Are you … Father Esposito?”

  “Please, call me Leo.” He reached out to steady Liz as she stepped out of the launch.

  Liz looked at Father Leo quizzically. “Do tourists really come all the way out here?”

  Father Leo kept hold of Liz’s hand as she stood before him on the mudflat. “Not usually. Some Brits came by yesterday. The kids thought they were you all arriving early. Got us all excited for nothing. But welcome! You don’t know how much we’ve missed having a doc around here. We certainly are excited now to meet the real Bowens … or Bowen and—”


  “Well, we’re pleased to see you both. Aren’t we, kids?”

  “Yeeessss!” the children screamed in unison. They wore uniforms of a sort – white shirts and dark blue slacks for the boys, plaid skirts of diverse length and pleating for the girls. Their colors displayed every gradation of hue and shade for blue.

  “My, Miss Elizabeth, you look even more stunning than your photo.”

  “Please. I feel all wilted,” Liz said, retrieving her hand from his grip.

  “We have refreshments waiting for you at the rectory. Fresh sheets and towels at your bungalow. There’s a generator that runs from six to ten every evening, and you’ll be happy to know that as of yesterday you have running water. We’ll hope it stays that way.”

  Frank reached for one of their bags. Father Leo waved him off. “Leave those. My staff will fetch them.”

  By staff, he meant a pair of pre-teen boys who clambered into the launch, only to be scolded by the launch operator in Spanish that Frank translated to: “Get off the damn benches with your muddy feet!” The boys took the largest bags and ordered the smaller children to help with the others. They followed Liz, Frank and Father Leo up the riverbank like a parade.

  Atop the bank, the path skirted a lumpy football pitch. Father Leo extended a digit towards a cluster of low buildings under a grove of palms.

  “That there, right next to the field, is our school,” said Father Leo, “Which, as you might have guessed, is off today in honor of your arrival. And behind the school is, of course, our chapel. The rectory and residences are a bit farther down beyond those breadfruit trees.”

  “Breadfruit! How interesting,” said Liz. “Is it edible?”

  Father Leo gave her a sour look. “Depends what you mean by edible. Doesn’t do much for my appetite. My cook, Itzel, sneaks it into stews occasionally. Reminds me of mushy cauliflower, and I like it about as much.”

  The chapel resembled a bare bones amusement park replica of a classic New England church, with white clapboards and steeple. Double doors at ground level opened to a dirt floor covered in rows of folding wooden chairs.

  Frank craned his neck, searching the complex for anything that looked like a medical facility. Father Leo tapped his shoulder.

  “Your clinic is down among those sapodillas.” He pointed towards a bunker-like mass of concrete block with a rusted sheet metal roof. “I have to apologize for its condition. It’s been almost a year since Doctor Rodolfo left, but things were in bad shape even when he was still here. I hate to be frank, but … I hope you’re a little shier than he was about taking frequent holidays. Rodolfo’s a nice enough fellow, and a good doctor… Cuban… but it seemed like he was on leave more often than not. That left the Sisters to pick up his slack, the way they end up doing with everything else around here.”

  “I wouldn’t worry,” said Frank. “Far as I’m concerned. Being here … this is a holiday.”

  Liz pointed to a tiny, one room structure sitting by itself in the middle of a lot. “That little cottage is adorable. Will we be staying in something like that?”

  Father Leo looked aghast. “That? Oh no, that’s not a home per se. That’s actually … well; we use it as our morgue.”

  “I … see,” said Liz.

  “Your actual quarters will be much larger and cheerier, I assure you. I’ll take you there forthwit
h. But first … I hope you understand … the Sisters are really anxious to meet you.”

  “Of course,” she said, as a trio of dogs charged, snarling and snapping.

  “Oh, don’t worry about those scoundrels,” said Father Leo. “They’re nothing but show.”

  “They act like they mean business,” said Liz, stepping back.

  “No dog has ever bitten a guest of mine … and lived to tell.” He glared down at the dogs and raised his palm. “And these ones know it.” His head popped up. He smiled. “Oh, we’re here. This is it. My rectory.”

  Liz shot a glance at her husband, eyebrows rising. The dogs pulled up, panting, roughhousing.

  The rectory was a low wooden house with a wide veranda and overhanging eaves. The Sisters, in simple blue dresses, waited for them shyly by a garden gate. Beaming, they kissed Liz on both cheeks, but kept their distance and bowed to Frank.

  “My boys will drop your things off at your bungalow,” said Father Leo. “Please help yourself to the refreshments.” A pitcher of lemonade and a tray of cookies and scones were arrayed on a picnic table in the courtyard.

  Father Leo nodded to a pair of smiling men in button-down shirts standing in the shade. “That’s the mayor and the constable, by the way.” But instead of introducing them, he prattled on about the mission and his ministry. Frank found it odd how Father Leo avoided his gaze, directing all his eye contact towards Liz.

  He went on and on about his early days in Belize, when had apparently been quite the woodsman; spending weeks exploring the Maya Mountains, sleeping in hammocks, roasting iguanas. With reluctance, and only when Liz's attention began to fade, did Father Leo lead them to their bungalow. The algal stains and blistered paint did not look promising.

  “Oh!” said Liz stepping onto the cool tile of the entry. “This is nice. This is actually pretty nice.”

  The interior sparkled despite loose tiles, patched screens and worn drapes. Someone had obviously spent considerable time tidying up the place. It had four, tall-ceilinged rooms, each with large screened windows. The bedrooms looked out onto a cleared hillside and forested hills beyond.

  “This is for you. A house warming gift,” said Father Leo, handing Frank a black leather case.

  “Thanks,” said Frank, taken aback. The case was worn at the corners and felt surprisingly heavy for its size. “What is it?”

  “Open it,” said Father Leo.

  Frank unsnapped the latch and opened the lid, revealing a black pistol.

  “We’ve passed this one down from doc to doc,” said Father Leo, lifting it out of the case. “Glock 25. Light enough for a lady.” He grinned at Liz, jerked back the slide and sighted down the barrel. “I see Rodolfo’s kept it nice and clean.”

  “Thanks, but … I don’t think we’ll be needing a gun,” said Frank.

  “Take it,” said Father Leo, placing it in Frank’s hands. “Better safe than sorry. This far out in the boonies, some pretty squirrelly people come through Rio Frio. Definitely not locals. Who knows what they’re up to?”

  Frank put the gun down like it was a hot potato. He had cultivated a fierce aversion to firearms. As an ER resident in Boston he had cleaned up after too many of the messes bullets could make: livers turned to jelly, femurs into splinters. He looked over at Liz, who looked as shocked as he felt. Better to be gracious, he thought. He could always lock it away in a drug cabinet.

  “Well, you’re both probably exhausted,” said Father Leo. “Have a good night and God Bless. You know where to find us if you need anything.” He turned down the path. The boys who had carried their luggage and a larger entourage of smaller kids trailed like pilot fish. Frank shut the screen door. Liz bustled over, eyes bugging, and stuck the latch in its eye hook.

  “Honey. It’s okay,” said Frank. “This is Belize.”