It’s hand-painted,” Martha said. “Look, Aiken.”
Aiken took the dish but barely turned it in his hand. “Everything is hand-painted,” he said. “God, it’s hot.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his hand and wiped the hand on his trousers. They had come to the mountains because it was so hot on the coast, but they’d gained nothing.
“Look at it, please. It’s lovely.”
“I thought you weren’t feeling so well,” he said.
“Can’t you look?”
He examined the piece. It was a shallow bowl the size of a small dinner plate, with a swirl of light blue and black around the edge. In the center, amidst a design of dark green leaves, was a trogon with a vivid red breast, green wings, and a coppery tail.
“How much is it?” he asked. “Ask her the price.” He motioned toward the shopkeeper who sat with her eyes closed, fanning herself.
“¿Cuanto cuesta?” Martha asked, taking the dish from Aiken and holding it up.
The woman opened her eyes, but that was the only change in her face. “Ochenta.”
“Offer her thirty,” Aiken said.
“You offer her thirty.”
“Thirty,” Aiken said to the shopkeeper. Then he asked Martha, “What’s the word for thirty?”
“Treinta,” Aiken said, flashing his fingers. “Treinta pesos.” He looked at Martha. “It’s probably worth twenty. Thirty’s generous.”
“You and generous,” Martha said. “Never the twain shall meet.”
The shopkeeper shut her eyes and went on fanning herself.
The idea had been to stay on the coast of Mexico. It was the trip they’d talked of for years before Aiken retired. They’d buy a camper van and get out of Denver. He was not about to sit through old age in a house on Belleaire playing solitaire and listening to game shows on television. He didn’t want to play golf or garden or glue together the accumulated fragments of broken furniture, or find some other hobby. He wanted to travel. He wanted to pull the camper onto a stretch of deserted beach and live from the land—gather bananas and papayas, shoot jungle fowl, and fish.
The names of the regions meant nothing to him. Michoacan, Oaxaca. He couldn’t pronounce them. It made no difference whether they were Mexican names or Indian, whether they were the words for mountains or towns or tribes. Cerro Teotepec, Chilapa de Alvarez, Sierra Madre del Sur. They were all mysteries to be solved later.
They bought a used VW camper the year before he turned 62. Martha had refreshed her Spanish with a course at night, and he’d fitted out the van with everything he could think of—two extra water containers, a rock screen for the windshield, two spare tires. He bought an exhaustive set of maps and an arsenal of insect repellents, sunscreens, and prescription remedies for stomach disorders, diarrhea, and insomnia.
Then one night as he was kneeling over the maps, studying the route he had long ago marked in red pen, he looked up at Martha. “Maybe we should make reservations in a hotel.”
“A room. I mean just for a few nights.”
“If you want.”
“I don’t want. I thought after all the driving we’ll be tired, and until we know our way around. . . .”
“You read the newspaper,” Martha said.
“Of course I did. What do you think?”
“I think that sort of thing could happen anywhere.”
“It didn’t happen anywhere. There are banditos. It happened to three Americans right on the road we’re going to drive.”
Martha smiled. “So if you’d feel better, call for a room. It might be our last vacation.”
He hadn’t called. They’d driven interstate all the way to Nogales, and then south through Guaymas, Mazatlán, and Manzanillo. Nothing had happened except they’d had to pay off children who washed their car without being asked. But Aiken hadn’t slept well. He kept imagining robbers shooting out his tires, people lurking around the camper, plotters.
Zihuatanejo was the fishing village he’d dreamed of, but Ixtapa, just down the beach, was jammed with luxury hotels. Martha wanted to sightsee; she wanted boat rides and bus tours and shopping. “We’re here,” she said. “We might as well enjoy ourselves.”
“I guess it depends on what you enjoy,” he said.
It would have been a place to stay on if he’d been able to sleep. Martha liked it; he could accustom himself to fishing and swimming. But at night he sweated the sheets wet. Even when the sea breeze came through the wide-open pop top of the camper, he couldn’t sleep. All night long chickens and donkeys cried out in the town, and he was vaguely uneasy, parked at the edge of the beach. The pills helped a little, but in the mornings he felt wrung out, as if he’d had a bad dream he couldn’t remember.
He thought the mountains would be cooler.
The mountains were cooler at night but just as hot during the day. And Martha got sick. One day after lunch she’d felt dizzy and nauseous, and they’d stopped in a place called Huetamo, which had a hotel.
The town was a rough collection of buildings and shacks on a hillside facing west, poor as other towns. The white church that fronted the plaza had two bells in the steeple, and a few crude shops were scattered among the debris. There was no doctor.
Martha took some medicine they’d brought and slept. She felt better, then worse again, then better. They went out one afternoon to walk and had found the trogon dish they’d argued about. Martha had been willing to pay seventy pesos for it. Aiken wrested it from her, set it back on the counter, and said he wouldn’t be cheated.
On the way back to the hotel, Martha walked behind him in strained silence. Now and then she stopped to catch her breath or simply to rest, but he knew she was angry at him.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked.
“No, thank you.”
“A beer might make your stomach feel better.”
“It’s not my stomach.”
“It’s damn hot.”
“It’s not the heat, either.”
Nothing in the street moved. The sun had passed its zenith, but the heat still radiated from the beige walls of the houses, from the adobe walls. Turkeys and chickens crouched in the slivers of shadows, and dogs slept under the rusted cars parked at random. They passed a spigot which dripped a small wet circle on the ground.
“We could sit under that tree,” Aiken said, pointing to a stone where a single tree cast a dappled shadow on the ground. “Or in the square.”
“I don’t want to sit. I want to lie down.”
Everything seemed as if in a dream to him: the roadway, the stone walls, the houses of clay and cardboard, even the dusty leaves of the tree.
Just then in front of them three men emerged from an open doorway in the alley. One shoved another as if a joke were being told, and the third man made a remark at which the other two laughed.
“What are they saying?” Aiken said. “Are they talking about us?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you understand. . . .”
“They’re Indians,” Martha said, as if he ought to know that at least.
The three men stumbled across the street and got into a claptrap Ford whose exhaust pipe was wired to the back bumper. The driver revved the engine and the car bolted into the dusty alley.
Immediately a dog began yelping.
Aiken had stopped, and Martha came up and held his arm. The dog lay on its side, screeching and pawing the ground. The car stopped, and the Indians got out.
A crowd gathered quickly from the nearby square—Indians, Mexicans, children from the houses. The dust which the car had raised settled over the dog. No one said anything; no one moved to help the animal.
“Why doesn’t someone do something?” Aiken asked. “Can’t you ask?”
Martha spoke to the man beside her, and the man replied in a hushed, rapid voice.
“What’d he say?” Aiken whispered.
“He said, “The dog has had enough trouble already today.”“
“For God’s sake, what does that mean?” Aiken’s voice rose against the quiet.
The animal calmed down a little, as if he were becoming inured to pain. After a few minutes the crowd dissipated. The Indians got back into their car and drove away. People moved off. Two Mexicans who had come from the plaza picked up the dog and laid him in a patch of shade which jutted into the alley.
Martha gathered Aiken’s arm. “Please, let’s go back to the hotel.”
“And leave him?”
“What can you do?” Martha asked. “And I’m tired, Aiken. If there’s no doctor here, there’ll be no vet.”
But Aiken moved closer. The dog’s ribs were outlined through its mangy black and white fur: that was not unusual. Most of the dogs they’d seen were hungry. But clearly its legs were broken.
A few children edged nearer, too, but Aiken flicked his hand at them. “Go away. Away. Vamos.”
“Please,” Martha said.
Aiken looked around. The sun caught her shiny forehead, and he had a glimpse of her suddenly as old. She seemed tired, worn, far away from him, like their house on Belleaire and his job at the office. “You go ahead,” he said. “I’ll be along.”
She paused as though she were gauging something invisible, and then she went on into the square, her step away from him slow and methodical. At the small of her back was a dark spreading spot of perspiration.
Aiken kneeled and extended his hand to let the dog smell him. But the dog was panting, dripping saliva into the dust. It couldn’t lift its head.
Water, Aiken thought. The dog needed water. He stood up and peered into one of the empty doorways. No one. In another he found an old man sitting in half-darkness. He was dressed in white and seemed to be praying, pressing his hands together over and over.
The man pressed his hands together, but did not speak.
Aiken backed away and into the street. He retraced the way he and Martha had come, past the spigot where the water was dripping, past a doorway with a red curtain, and through an intersection of unnamed alleys. In a few minutes he had found the house where the woman sold the ceramic dishes.
The same woman was there, rolling meat in flour, and he had to wait, money in hand.
At the hotel Aiken went straight to the room. Martha was lying on the bed with her eyes closed, the ceiling fan whirring above her and the windows open. The curtain wafted in the moving air.
Martha did not turn her head.
“I gave the dog some water,” he said, “but he’s still in pain.”
She didn’t answer him.
“How do you feel?”
“Better. I want to go home.”
“To Denver. Home.”
“We can’t go home.” He looked through the curtains where red bougainvillea framed the town and the tan and yellow hills beyond.
“We can do whatever we choose, can’t we?”
“After all this time?” He sat on the bed. “I know this isn’t the place we want to be, but we’ll go up higher into the mountains. It’ll be cooler, and we’ll find. . . .” He hesitated, not really hearing his own voice. He opened the drawer in the table beside the bed and took out the bottle of sleeping pills.
“What are you going to do?” Martha asked.
“Give these to the dog.”
There was a long silence. Martha still lay on her back, watching, it seemed, the whirling fan on the ceiling.
“Do you love me still?”
“Of course I love you.”
“Don’t go out.”
He didn’t answer.
“Let someone else worry about the dog.”
He was surprised at the resolute tone of her voice, as if she were telling him what to do, as if staying in the room were a special thing he might do for her. “Don’t you have any sympathy?” he asked.
“I do. Yes, I do.” She turned away from the fan toward him.
The sun came through the window with a clear, urgent light.
Outside the hotel, he turned left toward the plaza. Trees fluttered in a gust of warm air, puffing dust from the leaves. A heavy, high-burgeoning cumulus cloud rose in the north beyond the church—rain, he hoped. A car rolled past through the square, honking its horn for no reason Aiken could glean. The honking changed tone as the car went around the corner and moved away.
A small girl asked him for money, but Aiken pushed past her and continued across the plaza to the open market. He bought a slab of meat and held out more than enough pesos in his open palm.
When he got back to the alley, the dog had raised its head and was drinking from the trogon dish. But a bone had poked through the skin of its hind leg. Blood was clotted around the wound. The flies still swarmed.
Aiken lay the paper with the steak in it on the ground, and with his pocket knife, cut the slab in half. He took out the sleeping pills and poured a pile of them onto each piece of meat. Then he folded the meat carefully into tight rolls and offered them to the dog. The dog gulped them down.
A bar in the plaza was the closest place to drink, besides the hotel, but Aiken walked three extra blocks to a cantina on the outskirts of town where Martha wouldn’t look for him. It wasn’t that he wanted to hide. He wanted peace was all. From the dusty terrace he could look out over the plowed fields along the mesa, and farther up to the edge of the jungle which rose into the higher mountains.
He ordered a Corona, drank it quickly, and ordered another.
He did not understand Martha. Just when he was beginning to feel at ease, she wanted to go home. He had worked all his life for this time with her—it was more than a vacation, it was a new beginning—and she wanted to go back! Go back to what? To the little circles they ran in? To the smog and the traffic? Of course he’d been worried about being on the road. But he’d overcome those fears. And she wanted to leave!
He drank the second beer as quickly as the first—against the heat, he said to himself—and resolved to make the third one last. He could take his time until dinner. Martha could rest. They’d have a good meal in the hotel and sleep well, and in the morning maybe she’d have changed her mind again, and they could start out fresh into the mountains.
He was drunk by late afternoon when the shadows came into the square. Sunlight illuminated the church wall, pinked it slightly, fell into the open doorways of the shops and houses. The shadow of the fountain was skewed, thirty feet long, and the trees on the ground were ragged black splotches.
Aiken walked the perimeter, touching the adobe buildings with his outstretched hand to measure his posture. He skipped doorways, now and then teetered away from the hard dusty clay walls. A crowd had gathered near the fountain. Two children had climbed into the lower branches of a nearby tree to see over the men and women who were laughing at something in the middle of the ring.
It was still hot, and the beer made him sweat. He wasn’t interested in a cockfight or a carnival act—whatever the focus was of the crowd—but then the milling people shifted a little, and he caught a glimpse through the knot of people. It was the dog, lurching and stumbling this way and that, as if it had been struck by a bullet and would not fall. Whenever it took a clumsy step, the crowd clapped.
Aiken ran over and pushed through the startled people. “Idiots!” he screamed at them. “Fools! Get away!”
The people drew back when he shouted. He caught the dog in his arms, and the people retreated from him further, back into their houses, into the side streets. The two children scrambled out of the tree and ran.
He carried the animal back to its place in the alley. The narrow street was gray now, sunless. But heat still flowed from the walls, from the dry ground. He lay the dog on the same doorstep.
Now what could he do? The pills had only given it courage. Walking on broken legs. Now it would be a matter of time before the pills wore off, and the dog would be worse than before. Who knew what new damage it had done to itself performing before the crowd?
Perhaps he could buy cyanide. In Mexico almost anything was sold over-the-counter, but would they have cyanide here? Anyway, it was late; the shops were closed. It wasn’t a tourist place.
He filled the trogon dish at the spigot and hurried back, afraid the dog would move again. But when he returned, someone was standing over the animal—the old man he had seen before in the house pressing his hands together. He was dressed in white still, and he wore a beaten up straw hat which darkened his face.
The man was smoking a cigarette rolled from a scrap of newspaper, and he took a puff, and pressed his hands together, mouthing words through smoke which Aiken couldn’t grasp.
Aiken put down the dish, but the dog didn’t drink.
Indian, Aiken thought. He felt drawn to the old man’s calm. Yet he was unsettling, too. His skin was seared by years of sun, and he was dirty and smelled of smoke and sweat. But he nodded intently, as if he understood the necessity of doing something about the dog’s pain.
He puffed on his cigarette and squinted through the smoke. He spoke to Aiken again, words which were incomprehensible. Then he smiled and bent down. He lifted his white trouser leg and drew out from his boot a long-bladed knife.
For an instant Aiken thought the man might attack him, and he fell back a few steps into the alley. But quickly he realized the mistake.
The man grinned again, gray teeth ragged in his mouth. He motioned at the dog and offered the knife to Aiken.
Aiken felt dizzy. “No,” he said, holding up his hand. “You.”
The man held the knife out further.
The dog was breathing erratically, its moans punctuating the hot silence. Whenever the dog squirmed, a low whine caught in its throat.
This was a different thing, Aiken realized, a fear he had never thought of, though it had been there inside him his whole life. He gazed at the Indian for a long moment, an impasse, but he could not take the knife.
Finally the old man motioned him toward the doorway, and he himself backed away and disappeared into the darkness.
The dark air in the room was cooler, absent the day’s long strafing of sunlight. Aiken entered cautiously, his eyes unaccustomed to the dimness. A scent of cedar smoke hung in the air from a dead fire.
No one else was there but the old man, who stood in the center of the small space, still speaking softly, pointing with the knife at something on the wall. Aiken moved farther into the poor light.
On the wall was the carving of a dog, roughly-hewn from a piece of wood, a crude dog with stick-like legs and bulging eyes. In the corner, by a pallet on the floor, was another carving, a different dog, with a candle burning beneath it. The man kept speaking, but Aiken could not make out any words. The carving in the corner was nothing like the mongrel in the street, but an immense dog adorned with beads, painted in gold.
The man stopped speaking, and in the silence the living dog yelped and whined. The old man held the knife out to Aiken.
“I understand,” Aiken said.
He took the knife and went outside into the alley.
The dog was frothing at the mouth. Every breath wheezed like a sigh escaping from the bottom of pain. Aiken felt the terrible tightness in his own eyes, though he was not crying. He kneeled and, in his blindness, knocked the trogon dish spilling the water. He grasped the dog’s nose firmly so it could not bark or snap at him and pulled its head back into his lap.
The knife was sharp. He cut through the fur and skin under the neck, peeled away a layer of gristle and skin, and slit the main artery in the dog’s neck. Blood spurted over his hands and onto the thighs of his trousers.
He made certain the wound was lasting. Then he stood up and let the knife fall from his fingers.
Martha found him in the plaza by the empty fountain. He was sitting on the ground with his back against the broken tiles, looking up at the stars which flooded the sky.
“Aiken?” she called to him. “Aiken.”
He didn’t answer, but watched her come toward him hesitantly, as she might approach someone whom she barely recognized. Behind her the lights of the hotel shone across the corner of the square, and now and then a voice interrupted the silence, but the town, for the most part, lay sleeping.
“When you didn’t come back, I got worried,” she said. “Where have you been?”
“You must be tired.”
“No, I’m not tired.” He tried to see her face, but it was veiled in shadow, concealed by the soft air. “I don’t think I’ll ever be tired again.”
“What happened to the dog?”
“Dead,” he said softly.
“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
He nodded. A meteor sped across the heavens, and he breathed a draught of cool air which slid from the hills. “Do you remember why we came here?” he asked.
“You said it would be cooler.”
“To sleep, yes.”
“It’s pleasant now.”
“But sometimes in a great while, maybe once in your lifetime—once—you get a chance. . . .” He stopped because he knew he could not explain it.
Sitting had made his muscles stiff, fragile, and he got up slowly from the ground. Martha helped him.
“Come with me,” he said.
He started across the plaza toward the alley.
But she hesitated. “You’re not going to show me that animal.”
“No,” he said. “No, the old Indian took the dog. But I’ve forgotten something.”
She followed him to the edge of the plaza and let him go on alone. The alley was darker now, and only a glint of light reflected from a car window across the narrow street. The scent of flowers came to him on the stirred air. The dog was gone, as he knew it would be, but the trogon dish, that luminous circle, was still on the old man’s doorsill. He picked it up, tilted the dish into the dim light, saw for a brief instant the resplendent bird. He brushed the dust from the dish with his hand. Then, with this gift, he went back to where Martha was waiting for him in the darkness at the head of the alley.