On the Macal
By Mary Jo McConahay
Floating in a Beat-Up Canoe
Yellow-headed swallows dipped in and out of thick mist resting on the river. That fog probably followed the water’s curve for miles, I thought, maybe the whole length of Belize. I won’t see a thing from the boat.
Atop a high bank overlooking the Macal, I stood with my arms crossed, waiting for full dawn, feeling miffed. The fog had burned off along shore, but the water wouldn’t let it go. As I watched, a chunk of the white stuff seemed to break sideways and soar above the river, a white king vulture erupting as if born of the mist. It tacked and flew close over my head. I saw its magnificent wings trimmed smartly in black, each feather distinct. Shaken from myself, I watched the bird become ever smaller in blue sky, like a rocket launched into space.
“Just you?” came a voice from below.
A young man, very young but no longer a boy, stood tall and tanned, barefoot on the sand. He was talking to me. I nodded.
“Good,” he said. “We be light.”
At the water’s edge sat a feeble-looking craft about ten feet long, maybe a near antique, a Fiberglas canoe scratched and dull with age. How long had I been watching that bird? This tableau below me, I supposed, was what I had purchased at the hotel desk the night before: “River Trip, Laid Back, No Frills, Local Guide.”
The young man’s smile was not mocking, but he was enjoying something all right. “Yo best be comin’ down then,” he said. Had I been staring at him?
On the beach, I extended my hand and he took it softly. “Do you want to see the receipt?” I asked.
“Henry,” he said. His long, dark hair was braided into a thousand tresses, each secured at the bottom with a single cocoa-colored bead. I wondered who did it for him, then wondered why I wondered.
“So Henry,” I said, more curtly than necessary. “Do you want the receipt?”
He shook his head no. The smile became even wider, but it was kind. Bright teeth. Full lips. He lifted the bow of the boat and raised his eyes to the aft, a signal I should push. I took off my sandals and dropped them into the boat. The water felt cool on my feet. When Henry tried to help me board, I waved him away. Lowering myself to the middle plank seat, however, I lost my balance and almost tipped us both into the drink. He didn’t meet my eyes then. I felt spared, but mad at myself as we pushed off from shore.
“Yo wantin’ a ride on da river, Miss Lady,” he said to my back. The engine sputtered.
“Yo want to re-lax.”
He was right about that, but I didn’t like hearing it from someone I had known for five minutes. Younger. Who spoke oddly. I had not dropped biology for years of studying literature without carrying around some proper respect for the language and — I admit — disdain for those who did not. One thing was certain: I did not want small talk today, my only hours free of the standardized teachers’ tour with the others, my only time alone.
We floated under San Ignacio’s tremulous, one-lane bridge. The rumble of tires on old metal rolled in my ears, a roar that beat on my head from the inside the skull. I closed my eyes. Re-lax. Indeed.
“Like a thunder,” Henry said. And I didn’t want anyone reading my mind, either.
As the boat motored on, leaving the town behind, the harsh sounds of the bridge faded too, exactly like thunder receding. Slowly, the small engine’s soft putter became as much part of the atmosphere as birdcalls. In the mid-distance, three white egrets swooped low on wide, smooth wings, synchronized
like a team of competition divers.
I turned around and saw Henry perched on an aft plank painted gray-pink, right hand on the tiller. His khaki pants had been cut off above the knee, about halfway up thighs that looked strong as the trunks of young mahoganies. I suppose I had turned to get my bearings, but I am not sure. Henry steadied the tiller with an elbow as he pulled his shirt off over his head. He was slim, tight across the stomach.
“Da sun, yo know,” he said.
“Da sun,” I said. Then quickly, “Yes, the sun,” and turned to face forward again.
Sharp-billed kingfishers perched on boughs that reached low over the water. Sometimes one of them spread its wings and leapt from one branch to another, bright red breast like a shooting dart. A blue heron posed on a green canoe, the boat tied up empty, its owner unseen. The heron’s neck and head were still adolescent brown, the rest of its body promising proper blue. The wooden canoe’s green paint was chipped, curling around the oarlocks. They bobbed gently together, blue heron, green canoe, a silent poem where the land met water.
I don’t know how long we had been floating when I realized the sun had burned away almost all the mist. We came up on a rock that looked covered with brown lichen, and slowed. I dared to turn around once more. Henry cupped his hand, scooped up water and broadcast it over the rock; the brown mass burst into a cloud of tiny insects, thousands of vibrating wings sounding a high-pitched hum. Answering some signal known only to them, the creatures tightened ranks in mid-air, then settled again as one upon another rock, silent and seamless as a prayer rug. I could let go a little, why not? And gave Henry a congratulatory nod of the head. He grinned, proud of the lovely trick.
Sometimes the old boat entered patches of frothy water. I grasped the sides then, to keep from losing balance. Henry was in front of me now, the engine off, and at certain moments I watched his arm muscles strain to work the oars. Most of the time, however, he pushed in the current without effort. Once, when he pointed to the near shore, I focused my eyes and picked out iguanas in the trees.
They were about four feet long, the kind called “green iguanas,” but which turn brown with age to match the mottled boughs on which they stretch in the sun. I startled myself. I was recognizing the animals, even though so many years had passed since I had studied them and their brothers, recognized them even though I had never seen the real thing outside a zoo. The iguanas might have lain there a million years, I thought, crested backs and long dinosaur tails motionless as high noon, but eyes alive, flicking slowly side to side, missing nothing, prehistoric dragons at rest, watching the river.
Below them spiny-tailed wishwillies scavenged the beach for food. They were low-caste cousins of the iguanas, smaller, nervous-looking, perpetually scurrying. Tree iguanas are herbivores, I knew, and wishwillies carniverous. I did not need Henry’s description of their repulsive behavior. But I laughed despite myself when he delivered it in a didactic voice.
“When one person is buried an’ everbody leave da grave, dem wishwillie go an’ haf dem a party sure ever time.”
I wondered what else was out there, what lived from the river, what existed in that porous green jungle wall. “Any monkeys or crocodiles?” I asked.
Yellow fever “wipe out” the monkeys, said Henry, and hunters “ice da crocs” on this stretch of the waterway. But farther along where the Macal joins the Belize River, “they exist,” he said.
“I do believe da crocodile come back heah someday again,” Henry said dreamily, as if wishing it so.
For no reason I can give, besides the fact that we shared a capsule in time and space, floating hours together now on a river turning warm, I touched Henry’s arm to get his attention. “I do too,” I heard myself say. “Wish da crocs come back.”
“I studied all this, you know,” I said. “I studied all this once.”
My thoughts were coming fast now, as if they had been long frozen and were defrosting faster than I could catch them. I wanted to suggest out loud that maybe it was not too late, that I could return to immersing myself in plants and animals, that I could just as well teach science to middle school students as teach them the form of the short story by way of Edgar Allan Poe. I wanted to talk.
Instead, I let myself drift along, taking in the colors of a river that flowed as ineluctably as fate, its course determined long ago. Matte orange bromeliads. Lustrous orange butterflies. Look how the bromeliads tie themselves to the trees, but don’t live from them; they are not parasites. Rather they live from the dying leaves and other vegetable matter that float into their petals, soft pastel cups which cradle rainwater and condensation. Insects die there, and are digested.
A commotion in the bush, maybe a jaguarundi, sent small birds fluttering out of the canopy. White spider lilies grew in clusters along the bank, slender tentacles reaching out — for what? — from the heart of each flower.
Henry’s traveling kit didn’t include shoes, but did include rum. “Do we want to take a swim?” he asked.
Later, we lay on the shore. Because Henry wore no shirt, it was difficult not to stare at his left nipple, pierced with a shape wrought in gold. It was meant to be noticed, and he looked pleased when I asked. A marijuana leaf, he said.
“I thought it was a bird,” I said.
“Well, it make me feel like a bird.”
He would not be a mere boatman forever, Henry said, but surely manage his own fleet of half a dozen canoes someday. He knew the plants and animals on the river, taking seriously his job as a guide, “and I read,” he said.
About those things he didn’t know for certain, he said, he had “informed” opinions. The sudden and mysterious fall of the great pre-Columbian Maya Empire, the question archaeologists and epigraphers have debated for decades?
No one know where the Maya disappear to,” he said. “One day they just pick up they bags an’ say, ‘I’m going home.’”
I curled the toes of one foot into soft sand. All around us, wild purple bougainvillea emerged from the bush, circling the trunks of huge trees. This was bougainvillea at the creation, I thought, lush and brazen, embracing giants, not dwarfing itself to accommodate a tame trellis as it might at home. I felt Henry’s hand on my bare shoulder, and followed his gaze to a pair of dragonflies with pearly blue necks. The sun shone on their black filigree wings as their bodies moved and went still, moved and went still, copulating on the bow of the boat. It was full midday, but there under the jungle canopy, on a beach practically hidden from the river, the searing air only warmed, like the temperature that opens a bloom.
I drew myself up on one elbow. I fingered the gold leaf on Henry’s chest. “Does that hurt?” I asked.
“I do feel it,” he said.
I dropped my hand, but Henry stretched his arms above his head and closed his eyes. “You keep doin’ that,” he said.
It was natural we would make love, I think, as natural as the possibility that the river journey would pull me back into imagining a different present for myself. Only the coming of night drew us from the beach. We motored all the way on the return, to beat the dark, and spoke only twice.
“I can come to da hotel,” Henry said. “My uncle own it.”
“Maybe not,” I said.
Some time later, I heard tinkling sounds, as if from small bells. I searched both sides of the river for what it might be, but did not turn around in the boat.
“Da goats,” Henry finally said to my back, and I could tell he had a knowing, contented look on that fine face. I will never understand why speakers in these parts say “goats” for sheep.
drawings by rene ozaeta
You may enjoy stories by my sister writers in the volume where "On the Macal" is published,
The Best Women's Travel Writing, vol. 8, from Travelers' Tales, look here