“Why did you come to Coiyaba?”
Part of me truly did want to know what he was doing there, but mostly I sought to divert the conversation away from my own life. Perhaps he is not a Guitarrista, I thought. Perhaps he plays some simpler and more dangerous game. It is impossible to survive ten years on the streets without making enemies, and I had made my fair share.
“I am here to find stories,” he said, looking up at me for the first time, his eyes gray as moonlit stones. “That is my duty. The world cannot exist without stories. Do you know that? Stories sew the threads of time together into something whole. They make the masks with which we give eternity a face. In so doing, they give the infinite eyes through which to see itself.”
I nodded as though I knew what he meant. Like fear, ignorance is a luxury that I had never been able to afford. To gain control, one must pretend to already be in control. The image and the reflection follow each other.
My mind told me to run. It said that this old man and his guitar were pulling me into some kind of game, one from which I would never escape. Yet, my feet remained rooted in place. I waited, and I listened.
He bought yulu root soup and yellow beans and we ate them together at the top of the Stairs of Ascension, overlooking the blue sands of the Salterio Sea. While we ate, he shared the stories and songs he had collected. Some were humorous. Some were heroic. Others were melancholy tales, yet there was something strangely pleasing in their melancholia, something more pleasing even than humor or heroism, though I could not understand why that was so.
“I’ve come to Coiyaba to complete one story in particular,” he said. “It’s a story about a girl named Lemanja in a tiny village deep in the Red Hill Country.”
He set aside the palm leaf, now empty of the food it had held, and pulled his instrument close to him. The crowds of Coiyaba cleared the streets, taking the clamor of their voices with them, as the sun lowered and streaked the sky in purples and reds. His fingers coaxed an arpeggio from the guitar. He didn’t sing, but spoke rhythmically to the tune.
He told a tale of the girl named Lemanja, who was so beautiful that every boy in her village fell in love with her on sight. By her teens, so too did the men. The other women claimed she was a witch that had stolen her mother’s soul and life energy at birth, which is why the woman had died. The husbands laughed at the stories until it became clear that Lemanja did not want them. After that, they agreed that she must indeed be a witch.
Lemanja’s father tried to protect his daughter the jealousies and desires of the village. One young man, however, could not be kept away from Lemanja. He was named Murillo. Every day he brought gifts to the girl, and every day Lemanja’s father drove him away.
This sad game went on for years until Murillo could bear his desire no more and one night, driven mad with longing, broke into Lemanja’s room. The girl’s father ran to protect her. In the ensuing fight, Murillo stabbed him in the throat.
Lemanja took the knife from the young man, but she did not kill him. That would be too easy. She wanted him to suffer, so she let him live, but vowed that he would never see her again. Such a thing was a fate far worse than death. She took her father’s burro and rode out of the Red Hills. She never returned again.
The Guitarrista said as he strummed a wild tremolo. “Thus is the tale of the beautiful, courageous, tragic Lemanja.”
Darkness surrounded us. Only the sound of the waves on the nighttime shore stirred the silence.
“Do you know what this story means?” the Guitarrista asked.
I pushed some sand around on the stairs with the end of my sandal. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
He shook his head. “The whole world is in that story, if you have the right ears to hear it.”
“It’s just a story.”
“Yes. Just a story with the whole world inside of it.”
“You came here to find Lemanja,” I said.
The Guitarrista pushed his sombrero back from his head so that it hung over his back from a string around his neck. Starlight shone off a hairless head. “There are stories of a woman living in a taverna south of Coiyaba. It’s said that men travel from miles around to win her love, but no one ever does. She is so beautiful that they spend their lives trying to win what they know they can never have. That’s the story I came to find.” He measured me with his eyes. “Though, I’m starting to believe that there may be another story, as well. Another song.”
I shifted under the words. The desire to run came over me again. I didn’t know what I feared, wasn’t even certain that it was really fear that made me want to flee. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to escape. “I don’t know this taverna, or this woman that you speak of,” I said, hoping that my ignorance would absolve me of the Guitarrista’s lures.
He chuckled. “Only after the tapestry is complete will the whole of its design make itself known.”
“I thought you knew everything already,” I said, believing I’d caught him in a lie.
He shook his head. “I see some things faster than others. I see some things that others cannot see at all. But I don’t see everything. No one can see everything.” He stood and bowed. “It’s time I go.”
“I can’t go with you,” I blurted out.
“I didn’t ask you to.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m only saying that I can’t.”
“Time alone knows what you can do. If our paths do not cross again, then let me say that it was good to meet you, Maurcio of Coiyaba.” The grin on his face said that he didn’t believe for one moment that our paths would not cross again.
As he walked down the shore, I still imagined that I had a choice in what happened next. To prove that to myself, I stood without saying another word and watched him leave.
Coiyaba is the only home I will ever have, I told myself. I might even have believed it.