Moments in two people’s lives…
Sitting on Crystal River’s edge. Ice formed along the shoreline, three rainbow trout swam up stream in formation. This was fifty-two years ago, also a long time ago as now it is today, 2022. Then, memories of another river held me.
Even today the sweet memories of that Guatemalan river come back.
The river that went through the cattle ranch wasn’t far from the mosquito infested, burning hot Pacific coast of southern tropical Guatemala. The cattle ranch I had spent several work summers during high school as a cowhand was coming to its end, my last summer.
Now I longed for those brief, incredible days. Maria washed her clothes on the soap stained flat stones propped up on the river’s edge for that purpose. She knew the hour I would go for a swim. Just as of course I knew when she’d be at the river. There was a stretch of river practically covered over by green growth just a five minutes walk from the ranch house. On the surface also floated a thick carpet of Lechuga, or lettuce. Lechuga was a river and swamp plant which grew rich in this hot, tropical clime.
My swimming spot was at the river’s deepest. As clear as crystal, I’d dive under and reach the sand bottom, then look up almost fifteen feet up. Looking across the depths, the sun streamed in amongst shadows as beams, lighting up the bottom in bright spots. There was that time as I looked across the minimal expanse of underwater that I spotted a snake as it made its way, slowly, undulating, from one side to the other shore.
The snake seemed to be completely unconcerned with my presence. My minimal knowledge of snakes assured me it looked as though it wasn’t a moccasin. Its head wasn’t the ugly bulging kind, as in a pit viper or like that of the poisonous kind. More like a harmless garter snake. Though, to my knowledge, I doubted a garter was a swimming snake.
I just made sure he was gone before returning to swimming about and exulting in the fresh cool of the coastal river. Emerging from the water with a splash, I spooked a small bunch of brightly feathered gallinules. The almost chicken size birds set up a raucous chorus of excited screeching as they flapped their colorful wings to attract attention. On shore was like standing in the middle of a frying pan! The river was the only coolness on the ranch, unless you were drenching under a welcome shower.
Overhead, a group of turtle doves flew low and fast past us. The river’s edge, covered in wild vegetation, came alive with crickets and cicadas as though there was a noise competition.
There would be Maria, washing the clothes of her employers Doña Catalina and Mundo who was my boss. Her heart snatching smile resulted from several weeks of my trying to get close to her. Her presence on the shore awakened me in just the way God intended when humans were first designed. Shamelessly…
After several weeks of encountering one another, more words exchanged from what had started out as silence, then hesitatingly a few comments, finally talking and laughing. When Maria laughed, it was as though she was admitting me through secret gates to a place where very few were permitted. Did she wonder if she had been tricked? She was beautiful and her full figure never failed to remind me which was the superior sex.
She was magical.
The cowboys often spoke of her beauty, her youth, careful so that Mundo wouldn’t hear. After all Mundos wife, Doña Catalina hired Maria to work around their house. Mundo understood that Maria living in their small, thatched roof home included a safe haven for Maria. Almost as though a daughter.
It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least were she to tell me that men had tried to take advantage of her. This would not have been unusual in this part of the world where machismo ruled the world. She was so young, perhaps not as gullible as she may have been as a younger girl. It wouldn’t have been a surprise that men had tried to get their hands on her perfectly toned brown skin, to those forbidden places of wonder.
She worked as a maid in my boss’s house. Her own family’s home was in the south, near the Salvadoran border. She and her family had fled from that country because her father had got caught up in the efforts to rid the country of its corrupt government. Increasingly, people showed up dead on the highways.
Her uniform, or that’s what I call it, was a sun dress. The loose fitting one-piece garment did little to hide her gifts that were full and plenty. The dress was perhaps a size or two on the small side, making the hem higher than intended. Her rounded knees and defined lower thighs were resplendent in their obvious beauty and the promise of great power.
Her breasts threatened to burst from the clearly thread bare cloth holding everything in place. No bra in the tropical heat, so she moved about as though two honey dew melons were jostling in a woven basket on their way home from market. Her pretty, small feet, toes painted a sharp pink contrasting deliciously with her cinnamon color.
It was a time in my life where my knowledge of carnal knowledge was still in the ‘dear god, please make it happen’ phase.
It was all I could do to avoid not becoming obviously and foolishly engaged, in the visual sense. I had made progress of sorts of late. A week before, I had pulled myself from the cool river water to sit near her, where she pounded the family clothes on the flat stones. Her long, rich, black curly hair went well past her shoulders, reaching her waist. As she moved forward with each movement of washing, her hair cascaded down in front of her face, around her pretty shoulders, which shone in the sun.
The other day as we attempted to make small talk, tried to communicate other than the utter silence which in its own way spoke volumes, saying in silence, over and over, ‘my god you are wondrous, you shake my world, my life.’ I sat near her, my back turned partly to her so as not to crowd her, also to keep my view of the river as it flowed by, I’d spot where the fish would surface to grab a drowning bug, often a small splash betraying their presence.
She sat with her legs folded under her. This way she could reach the washing stone just in front of her, half submerged in the river.
I sat looking slightly askance too, so that I could break away from staring at the water that she splashed up onto the wash. Trying not to be too obvious, watching as it flowed over her exposed thighs and knees. The soapy water flowed through them back to the river to continue its way to the sea just ten miles from here. The sun played with the splashes on her soft, brown skin, like Christmas lights, blinking on and off.
Just a few days before, I felt I could get closer. My t-shirt was off and I sat not three feet from her. Her soft voice asked me, ’do you wash your back, canche?’ The surprising potential in such a statement was too clear.
‘Well no, not really, I can’t reach around.’
She laughed with a rich abandon, surprising me, not something I’d expected.
Her boss, my boss, knew I was very interested in his employee. My bosses’ wife even smiled at me when I’d go to their thatched hut for coffee in the guise of seeing Mundo, my boss on a work related matter. I was the only visitor who was allowed to come calling after Maria. My guess is that as I was friends with the ranch’s owner, maybe they thought I’d make a suitable candidate for Maria. At least in the economic sense. Seriously, I believe they thought I was ‘asleep’, or, in other words, harmless to their Maria.
Everyone there, including tiny brothers and sisters, the dogs and the talkative parrot, their three cats, even the pet armadillo, all knew why I was really there. It was all both me and Maria could do to keep from making absolute, bumbling fools of ourselves.
Lying in a hammock, staring up at the thatched under structure, I contemplated this life and the fact that I was still a virgin. As if to stress my sorry state of mind, a proud, fully feathered turkey strutted past me, pecking at ants unlucky enough to be in its path.
During another visit, Mundos’ wife, Doña Catalina, suggested I take the porch hammock to rest from my long day out in the pastures, rounding up cattle. I could hear her lecturing Maria from the earthen stove kitchen. ‘ Mariita, you must take the coffee to the canche with great care. Do not linger lest he grow tired of your presence. Make sure you know exactly how he prefers his coffee. First run to the store and buy six sweet breads for his coffee, go! Hurry back.’ The traditional customs of court ship were still very much alive in the Guatemalan country side. And off she’d dash and within minutes return with the cloth wrapped morsel of still warm fresh baked sugar topped roles preferred for drinking and dipping into the coffee.
Her arrival was announced by the sound her blue flip-flops made as they smacked down on the hard earthen floor.
In the hammock, I was alone as Mundo had to go over to see the administrator about some fence mending assignments for tomorrow. So Doña Catalina’s kids all sat in a row, on their haunches, at the entranceway, watching me. After all, I was the first gringo to ever set foot in their home. They found my erratic Spanish, much to their unbridled amusement. I’d speak, they’d laugh uncontrollably and seconds after would follow Doña Catalina’s scolding them for their poor behavior.
Mundo was no one’s fool. He had seen me eyeballing his wondrous employee. So, he had taken it upon himself to lecturing me on the finer art of winning a woman’s heart. We spent hours on horseback as we went from one work detail to another across the enormous expanse of the cattle ranch. Mundo tirelessly and so sincerely tried to pass onto me the skills he’d gained over a life of conquering women. Some things he told me I’m sure that Doña Catalina would’ve reset his clock about.
There was a strange balance found in these country homes. The woman, or the wife, the mother, almost always were the head of the household. The husband or father was led to believe he ran the show. Many times over the years had I seen the woman's wrath and power in a friends house. The man knew just how far he could push his agenda then wisely stood down.
Though machismo will still raise its ugly head it is common knowledge the women run the show. No question about it.
That noon at the river, which was when I’d go for my daily swim if I was at the main ranch house during our lunch break. Sometimes we were miles away under some shade trees eating coconuts and mangoes. This day I was almost right next to the object of my wonder, my unbridled adulation. I was sixteen, and the hormones were clamoring inside as though the villagers, pitchforks in hand, were getting ready to storm the nobles’ castle and set it aflame. She’d told me she was eighteen.
When she spoke, all I wanted to do was bite her lip.
Surely we all remember such days. It’s as though these moments were jewels, shiny, precious, almost within reach yet just enough apart where I could not satisfy that which screamed for my attention, an action.
It was then that afternoon in the river that she grabbed the beige loofa. A loofa is a fruit that has been dried out, full of seeds, and the size of a French baguette, used for scrubbing things clean. She took the thick bar of blue soap from off one of the nearby stones and rubbed it against the loofa and slowly, gently, placed it on my upper back. I closed my eyes. She chuckled as she began sliding it back and forth across my upper back from shoulder to shoulder.
I shall spare you the obvious outcome of such an occurrence. I was glad I had my jeans on. She seemed to know exactly what was going on because there again her sweet chuckling. ‘Te gusta verdad?’ Do you like it she asked, knowing full well that the question wasn’t necessary. It filled my mind with a new image. That of me washing her back. Suddenly, I had to return the favor.
To this day, so, so many years after, I can’t remember how it was I took a position directly behind her. I unbuttoned the buttons that went down her back. At the very start, she gently objected, ‘no, no por favor, no se…’. I stopped immediately. But just as soon she’d add, a tone of insistence, ‘esta bien,’ it’s okay… confused as I could be, I kept going ever so carefully.
But I could tell from her voice she was enjoying herself almost as much as I was. I didn’t insist or push myself onto her. At moments I’d just sat still, loofah still on her beautiful brown back. Starting again. Her skin was as smooth as the finest silk.
And so it went. She didn’t show that she absolutely wanted me to remove my hand, so cautiously I continued stroking her back as the white soap accumulated on her skin.
It was then I had a stroke of genius. I put down the loofah. ‘Vengase Maria, vengase.’ I said, come Maria, let’s take off the soap.
‘I can’t swim, canche’ she blurted.
‘Please don’t worry or be afraid we’ll just stay right here at the shore, just so we can take the soap off, okay?’
Without answering, she reached for my hand as I helped her into the river, waist deep, where we settled into the gently flowing river. I splashed her back, taking off the soap, carefully pulling aside a little more of her flower printed dress. As if a script that had been pre-written, I stopped for a moment. Then, as though on automatic, I ever so slowly let my hands and arms reach around her and held her there in the river. The only sound was the currents’ gurgling, as if whispering ‘life, life, life…’
She remained still. Then she said ‘Ay Dios mio…’ Oh my God, she said. Suddenly there was something I sensed as an urgency, a positive motion. I suddenly knew I could allow my hands to carefully rise to her rich breasts and there, through the cloth, fill each hand with god’s wonders. I did. One of her hands rested on my knee and held there, not venturing further. She said something I couldn’t understand. Leaning her curly black hair against my chest and chin, we sat like that for what seemed a while. I knew that was as far as I should go.
She did a half turn with her head, and our lips met. Describing the kiss would only ruin it. Let’s say that to this day, some sixty years later, I can recall the soft warmth, fullness, and sweetness.
That afternoon Mundo asked me why I was so quiet. He couldn’t hide a goofy smile. We were still a far ride from the ranch house. We rode for long stretches of silence as a low, hot wind carried across the swaying grass. The cattle were feeding. Not a word was said of what had happened. Mundo wasn’t of the sort who would pry, tell me, tell me. No.
The following day we didn’t get back to the ranch house until around six, early evening. My big gelding, ‘Comandante’ came alive trying to pull free of the bridal, knowing he was heading home to eat and rest. Finally getting back, I couldn’t get into my clean jeans fast enough and fresh washed t-shirt before heading to Mundos’ house just around a corner from the ranch house. I was already tasting her lips.
‘She has gone canche. Yes, she had to go. The bus took her three hours ago. Her mother died in Xacapa and she has gone to help the sick father with the children and their store.’ Xacapa, just may as well have been Alaska, impossibly far away. Doña Catalina had tears in her eyes. I wasn’t really sure why. Was it sorrow for Maria’s Mother? Was it she was sympathetically feeling the sharp tear in this delicate fabric, perhaps called the flowering of love, delicate as it was? What both me and I’m certain Maria was feeling.
A part of me didn’t care about her mother. A part of me did, out of cultured obligation. I was taken at the moment by a sense of loss.
‘Canche, she has left this for you.’ Doña Catalina reached from a shelf a small clay figurine, a cowboy on a horse. ‘Maria said to tell you this is you, she said to tell you this.’ Doña Catalina seemed to brace herself. ‘She said, this is my canche the cowboy. That maybe God one day might allow us to meet again.’
From under a pillow, she pulled a thin booklet. ‘She left this for you as well. She said she underlined some special things for you.’ I took the booklet, the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario. As a book marker between the pages Maria had placed a small Rosary. I could only nod at my gratefulness as I turned, wordlessly, and left their house.
Two weeks later, I was on the bus back to Guatemala City. In three days, I’d be on a jet plane at summer’s end back to my high school in Michigan. In those days, the sixties, Maria, having come from extremely humble origins, would not have had a telephone. Internet cafes still weren’t a reality.
I was never to return to work at the ranch. I went back for a visit in 2018 after my family and I moved back after a lifetime away. Everything changed, no familiar faces, new owners almost didn’t allow me on the property.
Things change and they certainly did here.
What didn’t change was the heart energy, felt back then and felt now.