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STEVEN W. BAKER

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 11/15/2016 |



“Magick is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.” ―Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice

“I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning.” ―Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies


Two nights after August's full moon, the rains decided to cooperate with fate by ceasing for just a while. For some reason deduced by the Witch, our quest would fail if carried out in the rain. Of the Seven, five were in the Land Cruiser making its way down the twisting, muddy dirt road that leads to my wife's family’s farm. Sergio, Marci's youngest brother, was driving. Marci's mother, Aquina, was riding shotgun. We all call her "Mama". Marci and I were in the back, with our niece, Alejandra (who got us into this whole affair). The sixth occupant was the beautiful, blond, Brazilian Witch leading us to some secret location. I'm not sure if I should include one more very mysterious passenger, the dead former-slave who could allegedly communicate with the Witch, coming from the “other world” to possess the Witch's entranced mind and body. (OK, believe what you want.) The other two of the Seven were not with us -- Patty, Marci's younger sister, and Patty, Jr., Alejandra's sister. We Seven and the Witch were the only people in the world who knew. It was our secret to keep or to destroy. No one, not even husbands or wives, knew of our quest or its objective.

It was late in the day, for our work could only be done during the first three hours after sunset. We had been warned that other times were just not "safe" -- especially later. We were nearing the end of an approximately two-hour drive to almost nowhere, to the end of the little dirt road we were on, the last farm, beyond even the world's power grid, a place still seemingly (or more than seemingly) immersed in the Middle Ages.

We were not into the actual jungle yet, though it lay on either side of us, usually just beyond view, on the other side of the farms and fields which lined the road all the way from town to the end. After the last farm, "our" farm, the jungle rules for I don't know how great a distance, but I know it's hold is still strong on whole mountains and valleys around here.

Cattle keep these rolling green fields beautifully park-like. They're like lawnmowers on a golf course, but with four legs instead of wheels. I like them a lot better, besides, I’m philosophically opposed to golf, but that’s another story. Despite the cattle and perhaps the farmers’ sense of aesthetics, the fields here are not completely bare of trees like most American fields, though it is not unusual to spot a tree or two still standing in a cow-studded pasture, even in Indiana. But these bright grassy eateries in this part of Bolivia are studded by many palm trees, some standing very stately, indeed, like little Statues of Liberty. By themselves, they don't shade a lot of grass and look lovely, so they are permitted to grow. The strange thing is that each palm tree has its partner or, sometimes, partners. Each partner has its arms wrapped tightly around its "victim", around and around like a huge python, from the ground to sometimes past the crown. Each palm has its own strangler fig, sprouted from a seed dropped into its bark by some errant bird. Slowly, the parasite outgrows its host, though it is a long, long time before these assassins feel sufficiently comfortable to stand alone without their poor hosts for support. The complete pattern and interwoven life cycles of the two trees are repeated over and over in all the fields of this region. It's a tragic love story and every cow pasture tells the tale of the silent but constant struggle of the lovers.

The winding road upon which we drove that late afternoon roughly follows a small river which flows eventually to the farm and beyond. There are no bridges, so the river had to be forded in three places to reach our destination. With all the rains, unusual for this time of year, the river was flooding and the rocky crossings were treacherous. Good thing we had the Land Cruiser so full. Maybe.

The women were talking up a storm, as usual. Their Spanish so rapid for the most part that it was tiring for me to try to follow -- like many of the conversations of groups of women in any language. :-) Sergio and I just sat mostly silently, keeping our eyes on the road ahead. Both of us, I'm sure, thinking, "What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?" Occasionally we’d catch each other in the mirror and smile uncomfortably. An hour or so before sunset, the birds filling the trees around us were starting to make a little more noise. More were in the sky or flying from tree to tree toward some chosen roosting spot. A toucan is always a good omen, and there was one, looking extraordinarily long as it flew by with its beak sticking out like the cabin of a 747. Sergio, who is a veterinarian but now runs the farm, spotted her first.

Rounding a corner and starting down a hill to the river, we were just about to make the last ford. We could see that the normally clear river had turned a dull brown and, though not out of its banks, was high and fast. It looked to be at least a foot deep and strong as it slid over the smooth rock that provided a good crossing point. Sergio down-shifted as we headed down the little bank and into the water. We locked eyes for a moment of silent communication, then we were into the water. The women were no longer talking. The Land Cruiser moved forward, but for every meter we gained, I noticed that we slid a little further downriver, wiggling a little as we went. Sergio was constantly at the wheel, back and forth just a little, giving the Land Cruiser as much power as he could without losing traction.

On the far bank, I could see that there was not an infinite window of opportunity to actually beach and drive out of the river. If we were washed too far downstream, well, I'm not sure what would happen to us. It might not be pretty, but there was certainly no turning around. Sergio had judged his entry point, direction, and speed well. Experience. Good to have along on a quest, especially in a young man. Each of the Seven had their own unique experiences and skills to bring to the task. I was relieved, and noticed that I had to consciously relax just about every muscle in my body when we rolled out of the water without a lot of room to spare. From there I glanced to my right and could see the not huge but nasty-looking rapids descending downstream. Whew!

The remainder of our drive was uneventful. Once on the farm, Aquina was dropped off at the big hacienda on the hill. She is an older lady and should not be made to walk through jungles at night, yet she was an important part of the team. She manned the "base camp" at the farmhouse (and later at her house in town), always working to allay any suspicions on the part of the farm workers, to provide diversion and misdirection, and to get people to round up a little food for later. The other two of the Seven were with their family tonight, but they would have future roles to play.

The rest of us drove to the top of a small hill in the pasture, around cows in some cases.

"Stop here!" the Witch told Sergio.

He did and she did. She stopped being herself. She got quietly out of the vehicle, closed the door, and stood there with the strong wind blowing her long blond hair behind her as if some kind of drama was about to unfold. I thought I could hear background music, but it was just the wind whistling, then it became suddenly quiet. I, at least, could hear no cow, no bird, no wind, only the Witch. She had seemingly turned into someone else. A name I know but am not allowed to say. Marci and Alejandra had seen this before. For Sergio and myself, it was the first time we had witnessed the Witch go into a trance and become a dead ex-slave from Brazil. I never learned if "ex-slave" meant that he became a free man while he was alive, or if he was an ex-slave simply because he was dead. I thought that could be of some consolation in dying--you're nobody's slave anymore.

Marci reached for my hand and gripped it, whether to comfort herself or me I didn’t know. The Witch, whose voice and manner had completely changed, looked carefully all around her, then pointed with raised arm off to the northeast and said, "There!"

A few moments later, she sort of wilted, becoming seemingly smaller, and her face relaxed into something more beautiful and less intense. She got back in and shut the door tiredly and changed back to her "normal" self. We had to tell her what she had said and done, but Sergio knew the direction to drive, so we were already in motion. The sun was getting closer to setting and the true Quest of the Seven was about to begin in earnest.

I guess you are probably wondering how we ever got mixed up in such an enterprise? Maybe you are even wondering as to the nature of the Quest itself? All in due time. I shall start with the first question.

When I was about eight-years-old, I skipped the comic books and went straight to “adult” science-fiction. Other kids watched TV. I lay on my back in the yard. looking up at the night sky and wondering at the immensity of it all, and, at the time, I had no idea how truly gigantic it all is, no one really did. I wondered how it could, well...be! How could I be? I mean, I was also a normal kid. I loved fishing and the stock market and chemistry and electronics and business, but I loved reading the most.

My mother would take us to church. My grandmother was very religious, but I don’t remember ever attending her rather cultish church except those rare times when I would accompany her. I always heard that my father was a member of a Quaker church in the town he grew up near, but I seldom saw him attend any services. I think he considered church to be too much like work on his day off.

Christianity, as such, never "took" with me. Having to believe in such obvious myths as Jonah and the Whale, Noah, or the Tower of Babel just proved impossible for me and my “boy scientist” mind, not to mention the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, or the Apocalypse. I couldn't wrap my mind around the logic of any of that, but I could wrap my mind around the logic of Einstein. Space-Time! Wow!

Yet, I have almost always thought that there must be something...

By the time I was 16, I had probably read almost every sci-fi novel or story ever written in English up to that time. There really weren't that many, and a lot of sci-fi books only cost 35 cents. I always had a job and money for books, even if for little else. When I learned of Dr. Rhine's parapsychology experiments at Duke University, I was interested enough to read his books and conduct my own experiments to see if I, or my younger brothers, or maybe someone I knew might be "psychic". I don’t recall ever finding anyone who was—not even my mother, who always “knew” who was calling on the phone, or my grandmother, who could catch bees in her bare hands yet never get stung.

On three occasions, as a young man, I stayed all night in allegedly "haunted" places, alone, camped out in my sleeping bag, mainly awake, trying to spot a ghost as proof of "something else". I guess I heard a few noises, but I certainly never saw a ghost. But maybe doing this triggered my recurring dream of enterring a large old house or hotel and having to face, alone, something that I can sense with all my being is utterly and monstrously evil. Always and relentlessly in the dream is the awareness that I must go into the attic or the cellar or wherever and face it down, which will, I assume, destroy its power. (Because I know in my heart that it does not exist? Because I know that is how fears are vanquished? Do I imagine that "good" is stronger than "evil"?) You got me on all counts. Dreams! Who can figure them? Not Freud! Not me.

In college I discovered Buddhism, then, more particularly, Zen Buddhism. I ended up going to Kyoto for three months, studying, learning how to meditate, listening to the old stories and riddles, experiencing a different way of living, a purer way of living, in my view. My sights, of course, were set upon the infinite. Could the monks be right about the nature of existence and all of Western thought wrong? Could there be such a thing as reincarnation, something after, without Heaven or Hell?

The practice and, I believe, benefits of meditation and mindfulness have never left me. I have come to view Buddhist thought to be nearly as mired in delusion as Western thought -- halfway there, at least. I know that sounds arrogant and condescending of me and I apologize for that, yet I must portray honestly how things seem to me. So, is reincarnation not mere wishful thinking? Couldn't the mind be constructed for self-deception? You might mediate under a tree for 20 years and think you have discovered that you KNOW there is reincarnation and exactly how it works, in great detail, yet it turns out to be just a trick of the mind? Couldn't the mind want to live so badly that it forces one to make such a construction? I, for one, will trust no such thing. Yet the idea of the mind of God everywhere and all existence being mere illusion and part of the mind of God? Well, that is more like the idea of "something else" that I started with than Christianity could ever be. And those guys understand the mind! My Japanese Zen teacher could meet someone I had known very well for years and seem to instantly understand things it had taken me years to learn the hard way about that person. How did he do that? Mindfulness, he said. As Ram Dass put it so perfectly and beautifully, "Be here now." What about the incredible tales one hears of levitation and tantric sex? I never saw any of that, but I certainly wondered a lot and still do.

Then I saw the chupacabra in Puerto Rico and everything changed for me! Just kidding. I wish it were that simple.

My wife, Marcela (though I call he Marci), grew up not so long ago in the tiny town of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, before it exploded into a huge city. She has had a fortune teller since before I ever knew her. His name is don Eduardo. Don Eduardo is from Peru, descended directly from the Incas. He is a brujo, a male witch, but his specialty is “seeing" the future. After a little incantation and sacrifices (of money) to the Virgin Mary and the Pachamama, he tosses two unlit cigarettes into the air and onto the floor. Their landing configuration somehow gives him information about the future. Hard to believe, I know.

Ten years ago, Marci was the head of the legal department at the largest oil company in Bolivia during the beginnings of the petroleum boom. As such, she was probably one of the most powerful, respected, and highly paid lawyers in Bolivia. I still hear stories from her old co-workers about her decisive actions during those legendary, pioneering days. The only problem was that she hated being a lawyer. Her real self, she felt, was something other. Her son, Saul, was 10 or 11 at the time. Marci quit her job (people are still shocked) and decided to take Saul to the States for a year to learn English. She had a friend in Celebration, Florida, she could stay with. Before she left, she went to see don Eduardo. He threw the cigarettes and told her that, in the States, she was going to meet the love of her life. Well, that would be a nice bonus.

I don't know if you've ever been to Celebration or heard of it, but it's a wonderful town and place to live if you're a little wealthy. Walt Disney designed or mandated it to be like American towns used to be -- not too large, pedestrian-friendly, with big old-style houses, wide sidewalks, bike paths, and some nice lakes surrounded by neighborhoods and swampy Florida forest. It's off the beaten path, yet has its own turnpike exit and little airport. There's no front gate and they keep everything, apparently, perfect.

By the spring of 2004, my future wife’s year and visa were nearly gone. Marci and Saul were planning on flying back to Bolivia in a week or two. Marci was just about to pounce on tickets. One of those last days, she was walking around one of those Celebration lakes, perhaps thinking about what the future might bring her now. She had no idea that I was walking around that same lake in the opposite direction at the same time. Though I had never been to Celebration in my life, I had stopped by on a whim while on my way to Indiana to visit my father. As she and I were about to pass on the walkway around the beautiful lake on a perfect, sunny morning, just about completely unaware of each other, a bird flying overhead pooped on Marci’s head and shoulder! She made a small scream. She did not say, “Mierda!” or “F*ck!”, as I would probably have done. Being the gentleman I am, and since she was very pretty, I stopped and took out my ever-ready clean handkerchief that I carry like a boy scout for just such an emergency. As we got her cleaned up (some water from the lake helped), we started talking. Now, a dozen years later we are still talking and I hope I am the love of her life, because she is mine. As predicted by don Eduardo!

Strange, don't you think?

Then there is the woman with no name who sits under a tree on a stool in the Ramada Market in Santa Cruz and uses Tarot cards to tell people's fortunes. She usually has clients lined up to see her. She is known simply as "The Chola". A chola, in case you didn't know, is an Indian woman of the Altiplano, an Inca by blood. I don't like her and I think she doesn't like me. I think she doesn't like men. She is cantankerous, contrary, and argumentative...always exasperated and a little angry, it seems, where don Eduardo is pleasant and easy going.

But once, one of Marci's relatives was accused of stealing some money from a friend. She knew she hadn't done it, so instead of calling the police, she went to the Chola, who read the Tarot and told her that the money was not even missing. How could this be? She said the money had simply been misplaced and would turn-up soon. It wasn't long after, when her friend decided to wear a jacket not worn in a long time, that the money was discovered in the jacket pocket.

Another time, $600 was stolen by a very evil person from Marci's father's house while he was in the hospital. It was an inside job, because the thief left nearly $10,000, thinking the theft would not be noticed. We had a minor suspect, but, really, no idea who could be so audacious. Surely not his wife, Aquina, or his son, Sergio, who were living there at the time. What a mystery! So, Marci and I went to ask the Chola. She carefully placed the cards she would read -- Sergio's fiancé, Gabriela. She didn't name her by name, but laid the finger on her nonetheless, and it turned-out she was right.

So, as you can see, you don't mess with the Chola! She knows things. Like my grandmother, Marie, only more so. Maybe the future always exists, even in the present, but is normally separated from now by...something? Maybe it sends some kind of vibrations back through time that sensitive people can pick-up? And what of the past?

It was within that past, that recent past, that Alejandra took Marci to meet the Witch. I wasn't at that meeting, but I guess the Witch entered her trance and became the one we started referring to as "the Dead Guy" or "el Hombre Muerto". I guess reverence is not one of my major traits. The dead man's "spirit", through the medium of the Witch, told Marci that a great treasure awaited her and was her legacy for alleged reasons I have never completely understood, though maybe Marci does. The treasure was buried somewhere on her family's farm and the Dead Guy knew where it was -- ten double saddle bags full of gold and silver. The Witch, when she awoke, believed the story immediately. I guess she could only get it second-hand and not directly from the Dead Guy because of the trance. Anyway, I was told that she started acting like Marci is some kind of special, chosen person. Marci was told she is the only one who could safely retrieve the treasure, but, because of the specific history involved, it must belong to the family and "those who know", not to Marci alone. There was a curse involved.

We didn't understand that "those who know" part until later, though everyone knew we were dealing with secrets, which is why I have not been able to say much until now, now that our Quest has ended. Marci came home that day and told me all about the meeting (séance). Alejandra told Patty and Patty, Jr. Patty also told Mama. Mama told Sergio. There the secret stopped. As we later perceived: The Seven Who Know -- Marci, Alejandra, Sergio, Patty, Patty, Jr., Mama, and me. Everyone who was told had to become a partner. Everyone who knew had to keep their mouths shut, or there would be less for everyone, or nothing, or trouble with the curse. We didn't need any more partners. Plus, there was already Chunty, Roger, and Diego, who would have to receive their "family" shares without ever knowing anything about where the money came from or why. Gold and silver would have to be converted to cash. But I never saw any greed expressed by any of the Seven. Generosity and sacrifice and skepticism were always the order of the day, and I applaud Marci and her family for that. If you thought the greed and gold-lust in Treasure of the Sierra Madre was human nature, you need to know that's not the only human nature.

All of this proved to be effective at keeping the lid on things. Even Mama, who knows or is related to apparently every one of the two million people in the city of Santa Cruz, kept the secret. And this is a woman who can literally talk on the telephone for hours. Patty never told her husband. The Witch, as far as we know, never told her husband. No one would dare tell the Chola. In the end, it was just the original Seven plus the Witch and her "spirit" servant (or master?). We gathered for a secret meeting at the Witch's house.

There was more information to share and the Witch served a mean Mojito. For one thing, the Witch would not take a share. She said, for reasons she could not explain, she couldn’t even entertain such a thought. As for the Dead Guy, well, he certainly had no use for gold or silver. The Witch had already been paid her fee when she did the initial reading with just Marci and Alejandra, so she wouldn't need any other. The treasure, the Dead Guy had said, was buried somewhere on the family farm. The Witch would come with us to help find the location. She did not know exactly where that would be without going there. She said that a hole must be dug about a meter deep, where we would find and have to remove a big rock. She said that would be her job. Under that big rock, she told us, after not more than another meter of digging, we would discover a smaller, hollow-sounding rock. Under that rock, we would find the treasure. Now, why would she make all this up with nothing to gain if she was right and clients to lose if she was wrong? What were the odds of her being right if she didn’t “know”?

At this meeting of the Seven and the Witch, it was also decided that Marci would not be able to do all this digging, etc., as the Witch had seemingly implied during the initial séance. A special ceremony with incense and incantations was held to sort of "transfer" Marci's right or prerogative to find the treasure (somehow intended for her finding) to Sergio and Alejandra, the youngest and strongest amongst us. They were “anointed” to do the actual digging. No one else could even lend a hand, with the possible exception of Marci, though, mainly, her “powers” were now transferred to her proxies, in my limited understanding of witchy stuff. I was happy with all this because I have never really enjoyed digging, myself.

I was gazing out the window of the old Land Cruiser, lost in these thoughts as we bumped along the dirt path into the jungle.

Suddenly, the Witch said, "Stop! We are close."

She said this as the Witch, not as the Dead Guy, so I don't know exactly how this information got passed between the two, but, apparently, it did. I’ll never understand this witchy stuff!

I knew where we were. Just a short walk ahead sits the little abandoned house of the farm worker we always called Tarzan, though his real name was don Miguel. There are several small houses scattered about the farm, most of them nearer to the big hacienda and the even bigger barns and workshops. Each thatched-roof structure houses a family that works on the farm. The kids are taken into town to school each weekday the road permits. Medical care is administered on the farm. Remember, Sergio is a Vet, or people are taken into town for care. The workers all eat their breakfasts and lunches in the big farmhouse dining room. So, much as in Feudal times, their needs are attended to quite locally, their pay is low but steady, and their food, lodging, health care, and education (these last two partly thanks to the government) are provided for free. I think it must be something like being in the Army in the US. You’re usually an Army family, poor and subject to command, but with all necessities provided. And, believe me, these are happy people, milking cows, making cheese, herding cattle, raising chickens for farm food, and doing all those things that have to be done to keep a farm productive, and there are many. You could never doubt the authentic joy of these folks if you once attended a party with them. Does this prove that the old ways make people happier? I guess you’ll have to make your own decision on that one. Maybe you should come to a place like Bolivia sometime and see what you think.

Tarzan chose to live apart from all this. He lived isolated and alone, kilometers from everybody else. He liked it that way. But when company came calling, he was always gracious and happy to see them. If you were lucky, he would put on a little show of making bees dance. It's hard to explain, but this was really cute and amazing. Tarzan was truly in tune with nature. His job was to grow the fruit and yuca required to feed everybody on the farm. He was a master herbalist too, not just a master of bees. We used to visit Tarzan when we went to the farm. It was always one of the high points for me. Sometimes we would take some steaks, which Tarzan would grill over an open fire, then we would enjoy a meal of steak with boiled yuca and some delicious in-season fruit for dessert, always better tasting outdoors. The whole jungle was his patio. As we cooked and ate, don Miguel would talk about the jungle and the way it used to be. About the monkey troops that came to visit his fruit trees occasionally, requiring him to drive the pests away, though he loved them. About the little river – yes, the same one we had forded, that flowed about 20 feet from his house, making happy noises -- which would occasionally flood enough to drive Tarzan into town. Actually, Tarzan had a house and wife and children in town. He went to see his family, normally, about once a month, and that was the perfect amount of contact for him. He preferred to live alone with his river and his plants and trees and bees. This is where he chose to be buried. He died a few years ago, not yet 60. No one has moved into his now abandoned cabin, which has fallen into neglect. I don't know who tends the fruit now, but I guess somebody drives or walks out here to do it occasionally. I need to ask Sergio how that works. It's kind of a sad place for all of us now, though we still occasionally drive out there for some fruit and to meditate by the river about how it used to be. With both don Miguel and Marci's father, Señor Roger, gone, it sometimes seems as if the heart and soul of the farm have flown. But I know that has happened before, perhaps many times, and the heart of the place has always been somehow restored. Perhaps that will happen again. I hope so.

So, barely out of sight of don Miguel's house, we got out of the muddy Land Cruiser. That wide, high wheelbase and 4-wheel-drive had certainly come in handy! Sergio and I had flashlights and spares and our machetes on our belts. Marci and Alejandra carried water and some snacks, in case we got hungry later. The Witch carried many secrets and a dead Brazilian ex-slave within her somewhere. We didn't know where we were going. Our plan was not to dig tonight, so we didn't even bring any of that stuff. The Witch told us there would be no time.

Suddenly, the Witch walked apart a little, stood perfectly straight and still for a moment, her long blond hair flowing around her head, then she spun around rapidly three or four times then stopped dead still, instantly (was that a magic trick?) with her arm raised, pointing northeast, away from Tarzan's house, toward the river a little further upstream. I'd never experienced anybody doing anything like that except in a movie. It was really getting weird out! I could feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and this was only the beginning of our Quest.

Now, please allow me to say a few words about this part of the Bolivia Oriental jungle. I'd guess it's all been cut before, but I’d guess it's been a hundred years or so in these parts. There are some very big trees, but mostly they are smaller. The titanic structures you see in the heart of virgin jungle don't exist here, yet. Perhaps they will again someday. On the other hand, one tree can be worth a lot of money in Bolivia (for export, of course). If it were my farm, none of them would ever be cut, and Papa Roger and his father felt the same way. In fact, Papa Roger was good friends with Noel Kempf, a famous naturalist who saved much of Bolivia from destruction, and was instrumental in establishing our wonderful but fragile and endangered national park system. The two of them used to sit outside the hacienda on the veranda with the view of the mountain and sunset, sip whiskey, and talk until, I have heard, the sun came up. Those times are still famous on the farm, and often the old tales are trotted out for retelling after dinner, of the way things used to be and the stories still remembered after all these years.

But we were instead in the “now” (well, the “then”), heading into the dark jungle on foot. This particular part of Bolivian is a little infested with snakes and spiders. The night was a cool, tropical winter night and it hadn’t rained enough to bring out the usual number of mosquitoes. In fact, that night, they weren't much of a problem at all. The problems for me were mental: 1) Bolivia has 31 species of poison snakes, most of which live in the jungle, even if not around here; 2) Sometimes there are many tarantulas, though locals say they won't hurt you, but I say a bunch of them could certainly scare a person to death! 3) The sun has now been quenched by the jungle, so it's damn dark when the nearly full moon goes behind a cloud. 4) Why were we not wearing snake boots? And I thought I had been thinking like a Boy Scout. 5) Is there really an unseen world of witches and brujos and the dead? Will I witness it without dying? 6) Oh, and what about those snakes?

So, we made as much noise as possible (snakes hate noise and, in reality, being near people) as we reached the seeming end of the small, increasingly vegetated path, heading roughly toward the river maybe a kilometer upstream of Tarzan's house. Sergio and I stopped to take out our machetes to help keep the vegetation and spiders off the group as much possible. There is an art to not slicing the guy ahead of you. An interval and mindfulness are appropriate. Looking around, I noticed that we could probably drive down this “path” if we knew where we were going.

The Witch was making strange noises again. She always acted like a refined lady with perfect Spanish and Portuguese, but when she was "taken over" by the Dead Guy, her Spanish became crude and full of expletives, some of which none of us had heard before -- either very old or maybe Portuguese. But all of “her” words were now spoken by the Dead Guy in a different and, I swear, more masculine voice. "Yes, yes, I know where the f*ck we’re going! I know all about it and I’ll never f*cking forget it! This is still the path, even if it's f*cking overgrown. We must find our way along it." And for the rest of the trek into the dark jungle, we walked with the Dead Guy directing our actions, always in about the same general direction, it seemed to me.

Marci and Alejandra shone the flashlights, Sergio and I hacked away, and the Dead Guy constantly insulted us that we were “f*cking p*ssies” and mierda and that we swung machetes like girls. And the thing was, he wouldn't respond to anything we said back to him. He was on auto-pilot. So, we just fell into the habit of replying, "OK, Dead Guy, whatever!" or “Claro!”

But he would occasionally come up with something new about the treasure, much of which was valuable information, but some of it, none of us could understand. We couldn't pump him for information, but we could sort of witness the story as it unfolded.

I believe this is most of what we learned that night: "The horses were damned tired by the time they carried that gold and silver up this f*cking trail. The f*cking jungle was denser than this, but the path was clearer. We didn't even need machetes. Marcela, your great-grandfather was in charge, it was his money. He wanted to, but he couldn't do this job alone. He needed three of his workers to carry and dig and help with the horses. Even I have no idea where all the treasure came from, but he wanted to leave it to the next generation, his still-to-be born grandchildren, not his children, who would inherit the land and the farms and the houses. This was his secret. He left a f*cking will that told all about it, separate from his other will. His closest friend and partner was entrusted to pass-on the will and treasure map to someone in that younger generation who could be trusted to honor the family first, rather than himself. But the friend died soon after your great-grandfather, and the secret was lost forever, unopened, unrecognized, discarded. Simplemente mierda! Yet, here we are in the next generation, maybe a little later than expected, and you are the chosen one, Marcela. It is your treasure for you to prove who you really are. I'm f*cking wondering that myself!

"That night was rainy as a b*tch in heat! Cold here! It was f*cking January! They couldn't bury the treasure in the daylight for fear that someone might see. It was an uncommon enough sight to see a procession like that! Ten loaded-down pack horses, four others with riders, and two spares, in case one of the pack animals broke a leg or was bitten by a snake (there were many more back then).” [Oh, great!] “Your great-grandfather was taking no chances and knew exactly where he wanted to go, though I don't really know why he picked that particular spot. You could hear the river nearby, there was a big rock, maybe he liked all that and thought it f*cking memorable, I don’t know or give a crap.

"Finally, they arrived to where your grandfather told the men to stop and dig. They dug down about three meters, and placed all the saddlebags in the hole, then some dirt. On top of that they placed an odd, hollow-sounding rock, then more dirt, then the largest rock the four of them could get into the hole was dragged and rolled from beside the river, then more dirt, nice and clean. Your great-grandfather took out his pistol and shot all three of the workers. He didn't even bury them, just dragged them into the f*cking jungle to be eaten like meat. He was a hard, hard man. He later told the workers’ families that they had been attacked by one of the jungle Indian tribes that sometimes still migrated through this area. I don't think anyone ever questioned him or even asked about recovering the bodies. Perfect crimes were not so difficult in those days.

"That is how I know all I know about this -- from those three dead men. I knew them for a while, before they moved on. In a way I can't begin to f*cking explain, I sort of went along with them on their lives. I experienced their lives. That's one of the things we do 'there', on the “other side” as the Witch likes to say. But the thing we have to do here and now is stop, because we have arrived near the place where you must dig, though now there is little time. Here, let me show you."

Then, the Dead Guy within the beautiful Witch started dancing with a grace and a rhythm that made it seem as if drums must be beating, yet I heard nothing but "her" feet shuffling and the muffled river off in the distance. We were at the base of a nearly 10-foot-tall rock that must have rolled down from the far mountain millennia ago. A large tree grew sort of around it. The Dead Guy marked the exact place where the hole must be dug, and what diameter it must be to remove the big rock, with the Witch’s body’s dancing. Incantations in Portuguese were mumbled and some ranted. Soon, the Witch wilted and seemed to pass out, falling to the ground in the center of the marked circle. We rushed to her and I sprinkled a little water on her perfect face. She awoke as herself, exhausted and hungry. We sat there for quite a while, snacking a little, and drinking our water, and talking about what had happened and what we had learned, until we realized our three hours were up. We had been told it might be dangerous to linger. The Witch seemed as amazed as we were by the story. Was it only sometimes that the Dead Guy could or would speak directly to the Witch in her trance? How did that all work? I never have found out.

We trekked in silence back to the Land Cruiser. Even the snakes and spiders were forgotten. The jungle seemed friendly now compared to the recent past. I mentioned to Sergio that we could probably drive much closer to the place next time, for the digging and rock removal. The Witch said it was best if we did not talk, so, silently we drove to the farmhouse where Mama awaited our return. But on the drive back to town, Mama was shocked and cried when we told her about what had allegedly happened all those years ago. At that point, I don't think anyone was caring much about any treasure. Darkness had come out of the past and haunted us. Our silence was for the men who had been so mercilessly killed.

A month by the moon later, only Sergio, Alejandra, the Witch, and the Dead Guy drove to the site on the appointed evening. They were to get as far as they could with the digging, perhaps to the large rock, at least, which the Witch said would be her job to remove. I was hoping for some kind of levitation or maybe she had a way to make it vanish or just turn to dust. I couldn't wait to learn what had happened that night. Alejandra called as soon as she was within cell phone range.

"We parked the car far from the site, closer than last time, but leading in a different direction."

"But what did you find?"

"We covered and disguised the hole well. I don't think anyone could find it, even if they tried."

"But what did you find?"

"There was the big rock, silly, just like the Dead Guy said! We dug down to it," she reported. "It wasn't too bad doing the work. Sergio did most of it. The rock is pretty big. I don't think four men could lift it. We dug out around it, but by the time we got that done, it was late and time to leave. The Witch said we would have to wait until next month. We didn't learn much else because the Witch was just the Witch the whole time. The Dead Guy never appeared. I guess he wasn't needed this time. I think she was trying to keep him from telling us more and, without him, she doesn't seem to know any more than we do. I'm beat!" Alejandra deserved and took the next day off from work at our restaurant to rest up. It had been a long, eventful night after a long trip.

In October, nothing was accomplished except a big wasting of time and effort. It was a Saturday night. This time, Sergio, Alejandra, Patty Jr., and the Witch made the six-hour trip to Mama's town and then the two-hour trip to the farm. When they arrived near the river and Tarzan's house, they could hear some of the workers laughing and talking loudly. They were drinking beer and fishing because tomorrow, except of course for the morning's inevitable, relentless milking by hand, was their day off. Almost for sure they had heard the Land Cruiser, and there was too much chance the group could be followed to the site. Sergio turned around and drove the group back to town, where Aquina was waiting at her house, having been too tired that night to make the trip to the farm. Besides, Mama’s cover story had already been planted -- Alejandra was interested in witchery and seeking herbs under the full moon.

A moon's month later, the same group plus Marci, made the trip. They knew the drill well by then. This group was luckier. There was no rain, no fishermen. But Sergio and the Witch were not really prepared, I guess. Neither could budge the big rock in the hole -- the rock that covered the treasure. The rock the Witch, I thought, was supposed to remove by magic. I had not talked to Sergio about chains and a plan and things. I had left it up to him to take whatever he thought he might need. He took ropes and tried to budge it with the Land Cruiser, but the ropes broke. They worked hard and dug around the rock some more, but time expired, and they had to leave. Maybe next month either Sergio or the Witch would succeed. I hadn't yet seen the rock, only had it described to me, but it didn't sound like an easy thing to move without magic.

By the end of the December dig, the big rock was gone! The Witch hadn’t even made that trip, only Sergio and Alejandra, but Sergio had really done his homework this time and, with the help of the Land Cruiser and some chain borrowed from me, was able to actually pull the big rock out of the hole. A brilliant piece of engineering! Fortunately, it turned out to be a loose rock, not an outcropping of bedrock as I had feared after hearing the tale from the previous month. But by the time the rock was out of the hole, it was time to start the well-rehearsed camouflaging operations so they could be completed by when time expired, about 9:30 or so. What lay under that big rock we did not yet know and would have to wait at least another long moon-month to find out. Everyone in the Seven did the opposite of their rain dances, they did their anti-rain dances, all month long.

We were all excited about the January dig because we were pretty sure the going would be easier now that the big rock was gone. Suddenly, we might be very rich, though many problems could lie in that area. We had potential solutions for each, though we never thought it proper and, in fact, the Witch had warned against, talking too much about treasure or money or what we might do with it. No problem.

For me, the stakes were even higher. All the others were already True Believers. But finally, I might learn the truth or falsehood of not just the Witch's tales, of the Dead Guy's tales, but something of the nature of the universe and life itself. The world of the spirit, the realm of the Mind of God, might soon be slapping me in the face.

Yet, even I bought in enough to worry that someone, some worker, some fisherman, had found the site and hauled off the treasure ahead of us. After all, last month, Sergio had been forced to drive the Land Cruiser to the hole itself in order to pull out the big rock. Surely this left a trail someone could follow if they got curious, though normally few people ever ventured beyond Tarzan’s house. I knew Sergio and Alejandra had tried hard to cover their tracks around the site, and the hole itself, but some of these locals could track animals. How hard could it be to track a Land Cruiser, if one of them so desired?

Sergio had left little traps at the site we had devised which would reveal if anyone had been there and disturbed anything. After all, a big hole not far from the dead-end head of a jungle path that had obviously had vehicle traffic would do nothing but inspire curiosity, though by our return a month later, many signs of our passage were obscured, still some remained. As I mentioned before, Mama had helped by talking to all her farm friends about fictitious worries that Alejandra might be becoming a witch, off into the jungle trying to find special herbs. This gave a pretext for our presence and, believe me, nobody on the farm wanted to have anything to do with witchcraft they hadn't paid for themselves. Too dangerous to think about. They were Believers! Still, I was worried about the discovery of our Quest and, appropriately, so were the others. Perhaps…almost believing…

Finally, the moon became full once again. It threatened rain all day long and even sprinkled a little, but the night was cool and dry, especially for spring in the tropics, and the river crossings were tame. Funny how the names "wet season" and "dry season", so appropriate in the past, don't mean much around here anymore. Everybody wanted to go this time, except perhaps the Witch and the Dead Guy, who were not able to make the trip for some reason, but it was finally decided that it would be the two "diggers", Sergio and Alejandra with Marci and myself who would make the trip. I didn’t think I could have missed it for anything; besides, it was essentially free!

This time, since the Witch wasn't there, we got to spend the whole time driving to the farm and the site talking about her. Her ears must have itched! Opinions varied widely, but everybody was inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, though all were disappointed she could not accompany us on what might be our historic final journey ever, made as the people in our old lives of comparative poverty and ignorance. We liked the Witch.

We saw no one on our way to the site and no signs that anyone had been there. Whew! The rain kept holding off, clouds were scuttling past the aged though ageless moon. The digging team got their equipment from the truck, while I took my flashlight and went back down the trail a bit to take a leak. That is where the snake was waiting for me, and I didn’t even have my machete. John, my old lost-at-sea sailing and bar partner from St. Lucia, always used to tell me that if you see a snake, it came to kill you. That magical world again... And, believe me, this one was certainly up to the task -- sort of like a light diamondback, but with a pattern more like pyramids than diamonds, different but similar, yellow on the bottom coming slightly up the sides, probably a jararacussu, with enough poison to kill 32 people, according to the internet, but by then, I was wearing thick cowboy boots from the Chaco, which might or might not have helped. This thing was big, possibly the kind of snake that kills one of our cattle now and then, though I always suspected the cascabels. He could probably have bitten me anywhere he wanted to if he hadn’t wanted to escape so badly. My heart was beating like crazy, but, by then, I was looking at the back end of him, sliding away into the undergrowth, so I was probably safe, though I backed slowly away and walked well around that spot. Whew again! I wondered if this could be a good omen or a bad omen, but the Witch was not there to ask.

To make a long story short, the diggers dug while Marci and I worked the lights and listened and watched for potential intruders. I didn't go back into the jungle that night alone. After about an hour, another meter down, the hole was narrowing a little and Sergio was digging like a madman. He wanted to get this finally over with too. Suddenly his pick struck something. As he removed buckets of dirt, hauled up by Alejandra, then piled for now behind our big rock/tree, we could see another rock emerging. When his shovel or pick truck it, there was definitely a hollow sound. This must be the second rock, which we thought of as the cap of a burial chamber full of treasure.

When the small rock was largely free of dirt, Sergio wrapped it in chains, backed-up the Land Cruiser to the hole, connected the chains to the convenient chassis eyes, and slowly dragged the small rock out of the now about two-meter-deep excavation. The removal went essentially without a hitch. Another hour was gone.

And, there, under the small rock, we could see something. Unfortunately, that something was not the promised treasure chamber, but more dirt. For nearly an hour, Sergio and Alejandra dug deeper, perhaps another meter. Still nothing but clay. Fortunately, it wasn't wet down in the now deep hole. Sergio needed the rope to climb out, then pulled up his tools via another. We all walked to the edge and shone our lights on the bottom. Nearly four meters down and nothing. Time was up. We barely bothered to camouflage the dig and drove directly and silently back to Mama's house in town.

Instead of a resounding confirmation of "something", I received the dull thud of more lack of proof gradually becoming a body of evidence in itself, though perhaps not totally conclusive, but nearly. I wondered why the Witch would go out on such a limb. Why would she take such a risk and surely lose good clients if she were proven wrong? There was certainly no money in it for her, except perhaps a nice tip. But if she didn’t truly "know", then she knew there would be no tip at the end. Weird, don't you think?

The Witch now says we only have to dig deeper, but I have lost faith and so has Marci, though maybe not Alejandra and Sergio, who plan to go back one more time to dig deeper. I hope they will not do anything dangerous, because it would be a tragedy if someone were hurt on such an enterprise. I have explained to them both that the deeper the hole, the more dangerous the work, though the ground has seemed pretty stable, so far. Besides, I told them, the bottom of the hole might already have filled up with water. Who would bury saddlebags or treasure in such a place? But they want to dig! Could there still be hope? I have little to none myself.

To me, the story has ended, so there it is. Believe what you want. We are still without proof.


Steven W. Baker has essentially lived two lives as a writer — as a college student and shortly after, when he published a lot of work in underground newspapers and obscure journals, most of which are probably now defunct. His second life as a writer began a quarter century later, after he started traveling and living around the world. He has now gathered a large body of unpublished work from this period that was written for himself and his close friends, which he is now publishing. His poems have appeared, among many others publications, in Eat Sleep Write, Silver Birch Press, The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society, Ty(po-e:tic)us, Pilcrow & Dagger, Spirit Caller Magazine, and Flink.to, where his poem, “Picture of Marigot Bay” won the 2014 Poetry Contest.


©2016

STEVEN W. BAKER

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