By the time the following night came, the lure of the guitar overcame my stubborn apprehension and I headed south.
Music seemed to play faintly in the air. It was so quiet that I was not sure it was really there, or in my mind. Whichever it was, I pushed towards it.
Only after I was sure that the lights of Coiyaba would be gone did I turn back and look at the darkness stretched out behind me like the boundary between two worlds. In that moment I knew I would never see that place again. No, I knew I would see that place again, but never as the same Mauricio.
I walked for a long time, and was beginning to think I’d made a mistake, when the music grew louder and clearer. The sounds were truly there, and they were coming from the jungle to my left.
Walking inland, I reached a line of trees and saw beyond it a small taverna. Pale light shone through slats in the window shutters and the smell of burning pipe leaf wafted through the air. The building was two stories tall with a slanted barrel tile roof. A large window looked towards the sea from the second floor and in its shadowy recesses stood the faint outline of a woman’s figure, watching me.
I opened the taverna door, releasing a hot wave stinking of smoke and sweat and mold. I recoiled and would have turned back, but the music was playing inside, and I had to see the Guitarrista. Whatever the nature of the man’s hold, it was irresistible, so I strengthened myself and walked inside.
Scattered candles flickered within the dim interior. Snake skins, aged as thin as paper, were stretched out and pinned to the walls. A dozen or so men sat at tables inside, each alone, slumped over and staring into his cup. They didn’t acknowledge my entrance. Sitting on a stool in the corner, the Guitarrista’s sombrero hung low and cast his face in shadow so that he looked like some sort of specter.
The barman sneered at me as I approached. He was a towering man with enormous hands bulbous with misshapen knuckles. His right eye was quartzite with a crack clear down the middle. He folded his arms over his chest. “I don’t serve drinks in baby bottles,” he said.
I pulled a coin from my pocket and set it on the bar. “Good, because I don’t drink them that way.”
The bartender glared at the money for a moment before snatching it. Without asking what I wanted, he poured cactus wine into a wooden cup and slid it across the bar.
I walked to the table nearest the Guitarrista. From that position, the faces of the other men were clearer. Red eyes looked out vacantly from bruised portals and gaunt faces. They looked like they hadn’t slept in weeks.
The Guitarrista strummed a wordless song, soft notes weaving in and out with the distant sound of the waves, as though the man and the sea played as one. The taverna’s atmosphere felt like the inside of a water clock, swollen with a palpable sense of waiting.
A door slammed and the music stopped. I turned to see a woman standing at the back of the room. The tortured patrons watched her with half-crazed longing and hatred in their bleary eyes. It was clear that she was the reason they had come to that haunted place to drink and sweat in misery, and I remembered the Guitarrista’s tale of Lemanja.
How long had those men been there waiting for her, I wondered. How long would they continue to wait?
Her coffee colored skin glistened with sweat. A white camisole hung plastered to her body, shoulder straps clinging in slack, useless lines to her shoulders. She wore her black hair bundled atop her head, a tall, angular woman looking regal and wild as she threw her head back to survey the taverna like the unconquered queen of a conquered kingdom. She stared at each man with her dark eyes until he bowed his head and turned back to his cup in defeat. It was a pitiful sight, and as I sat waiting, I vowed that I would not be so humiliated, no matter how badly my body trembled. One by one, the men suffered their shame, until finally her gaze fell on me. It seemed my heart might burst, but I didn’t turn away.
The Guitarrista began a serpentine, sinister sounding samba, punctuating the chords every now and then with a thunderous slap of his hand against the instrument.
Lemanja twisted and swayed to the music, her sinewy musculature charging every movement with lightning, her eyes on mine.
She gyrated and slithered up to the Guitarrista, her dance intensifying to the music, watching me over her shoulder with a haughty smile. As she writhed in sexual menace, I struggled to steady my hands. Her beauty filled me with a terror as instinctive as the fear of fire, but I would not back down from the challenge. Even if I wanted to, I would not. It was simply not in my character to do so. So I drank the last of my wine, set down my cup, and walked to her.
Before I could make a move, she grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me against her body. The people of Coiyaba treasure three things above all others: courage, love, and dancing, and I was an expert in all of them. Yet, when Lemanja took me into her arms, I became just as weak and helpless as a merchant’s son.
Twisting in my grasp, she drove her pelvis against mine. The scent of tequila mingled with dahlias emanated from her. I was drunk the smell and mesmerized by the shadows moving over her face from the wavering candlelight. For what seemed like a lifetime I floated helplessly in space, my senses moored to this world only by Lemanja’s sad and mocking eyes.
I didn’t notice when the music stopped. I only knew we had stopped moving.
She kissed me, ever so delicately, and walked back through the taverna to the door from which she’d appeared. Inside the doorway she stopped, looked over her shoulder at me invitingly, and stepped inside.
The men in the taverna glared at me. Each one looked capable of murder. If they thought it had any chance of winning them Lemanja, there is no doubt they would have killed me on the spot. It didn’t matter to me. I would have walked through all of their blades if I had to, just to fall bleeding before Lemanja before I died. Her presence called me upstairs just as surely as the guitar had called me out of Coiyaba.
I took a deep breath and followed Lemanja.