The loud thrum from the oxygen compressor startles Julio.
At Kamayakli the tunnel resembles a parched throat to Julio. It gapes long and deep before the front of the group in the lantern light. He palms the cool, carved limestone pressing round him to escape the thought of being swallowed. But it’s no use; there it is: Temo, all those years ago, and the pulp he resembled when they finally pulled him out of the canal. Ever since then Julio’s father had made it the Cortázar custom each time his son wandered off to say I don’t want to have to dig you out, too, and as a boy he’d done his best to obey. The walkway narrows. The sides scrape the tips of his elbows and steal him from his memories.
A sharp elbow digs into his chest. Keep up, Julio. We’re almost there. Lara’s words bounce off the stone and back to where he staggers. He smiles in the dark knowing he trusts her.
The light widens; the air changes. Julio notices a pair of pudgy tourists coming into the light: a camera-strapped Frodo and Sam, he imagines playfully, joining him in this descent into Moria. They mumble hurriedly at each other in a language he doesn’t understand. He laughs to himself while Lara muffles her own amusement in front of him. The rest of the group settles into their spines and shadows in the dancing pool of kerosene light.
…Doctor Lara Cortázar, the tour guide calls out.
And Julio watches his wife slice through the crowd and out under a wide and heavy archway. She begins in that raspy tone he loves and admires and everyone listens intently, even Frodo and Sam beside him. He half-smiles again as his wife goes on about the one central, cavernous well, and then the wide silos ten stories down, then the ancient stable they are standing in which she helped excavate, and, finally, how the entire complex served as an ancient stronghold against Arab invaders. Julio imagines that this is what Lara is saying, anyways, for her Turkish is as foreign to him as hard sunlight where he stands.
Shh, she demands, and like everyone else, Julio captures the music of trickling water, somewhere.
She resumes. Her words, her presence, they are ominous in that creviced light. Shadows slowly shift. The congregation bobs collective heads at everything Lara says. As if they’d all gladly calcify hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth, Julio included, just for the chance to hear more.
This; here. See, Julio?
Where, Lara? There?
Doesn’t hurt, though.
It’s big; right there. Right?
Ah! But don’t! Don’t squeeze it.
Okay; I won’t. I promise; I won’t.
Since Tenochtitlan, Julio’s father instructs him from the edge, but as a boy he decides to shrug his shoulders. He doesn’t care. Not this early in the morning. Not in this stench. Not on this day of all days! He pinches his nose with one set of fingers and with the other picks the crusty stuff from the sides of his eyes. The sun pokes through a thin slit between a pair of skyscrapers and blurs across the dark sewer water still sleeping in the long row of numbered pools.
Paunchy in his thick diving suit, Julio compares his father to an astronaut.
Nezahualcóyotl, Julio, the great poet and emperor of Tezcoco, he helped construct them, and the Mexica used these sewers before Cortés arrived to pump the filth out, just like we do today. It’s when things get stuck down there that I have to go in and clear it all out.
Julio’s young stomach grumbles, and he remembers the chorizo sandwich his father had prepared for him back home, and the vow he’d secretly made not to take one bite from it, just to show his father who was boss.
Eh, mi topo? What do you think? Or are you still mad at me for getting you up so early?
Julio hates his nickname, but he endures it, like his hunger. Don Tacho arrives, his father’s friend and co-worker, carrying a heavy helmet before of him, fastened to a pair of flaccid cables.
And now, time to go to work, mi topo. Happy birthday.
The loud thrum from the oxygen compressor startles Julio. Before he can finally give in and confess his hunger to his father Don Tacho locks the helmet into place, and the boy watches his father tow the cables with him to the edge of the second pool, leap in feet first, and sink straight down.
Julio’s stomach churns. On the concrete the cables palpitate like exposed veins.
I am sad, I grieve
I, lord Nezahualcóyotl.
With flowers and with songs
I remember the princes
Those who went away…
Temo stuffs the squib in the hole, lights it, nearly trips on the train track backing away. It sizzles there like a frying plantain until POP!, forcing Julio to wince. He opens his young eyes to tiny bits of cindered newspaper fluttering down on dust as Temo lets out another celebratory guffaw, returns to the same spot, punches his fist into his right pocket for a second palomita, and uses his incisors to pull out the fuse a bit more. He bends down to give it flame, backs up next to Julio again.
¡Eso!, Temo celebrates.
In the summer heat the smell of gun powder nauseates Julio more than usual. He spots a cacique darting fast across the sky and into the arbor of a wide guamuchil nearby. Further on, deep in the east, he can see Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl in tall sleep, their peaks tipped with spongy snow.
Vámonos, he finally says, fighting back the taste of sweat from his upper lip.
Just one more, Julio. To get them out.
We can do them by the canal, Temo. I told you: if my father sees me, I won’t be able to go.
Uno mas, Julio. Just to get them out. Then we go.
Temo pulls a new squib out, a fat one, makes for the hole again. Frustrated, Julio leans in and curves a sandaled foot onto one of the old abandoned train tracks. He looks behind him down the lazy street busy with a lone fruit vendor, seated on a stool by his cart and swatting flies.
Hah! What I tell you, cabrón? Eh, Julio? Look at them! Look!
The dust and newspaper particles begin to settle, and Julio can finally see the exiting horde. They crawl out of their hole in all directions and up and over one another, the fire ants, the same way he and Temo and the other boys spill out of the classroom each day, fondling any girls they can along the way. He jumps on the train track so the ants don’t get at his toes.
And they’re mad as fuck, Julio. Ahora si--¡Vámonos!
And they leap in tip toes, laughing, as they bound past the guamuchil leading to path down to the canal.
Robert Paul Moreira
Frayed Edge Press
Paperback, 9781642510416, 185 pgs.
October 11, 2022
Robert Paul Moreira, Lecturer III at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, earned his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Texas Pan American, and his Ph.D. in English from The University of Texas at San Antonio. His books include ¡ARRIBA BASEBALL!: A COLLECTION OF LATIN@ BASEBALL FICTION (2013), SCORES (2015, winner of the 2016 NACCS Tejas FOCO Fiction Award), and DIG (2022). As a dramatist, Robert's plays include MIRIAM’S SONG and MALINALLI, a musical in collaboration with Josiah Esquivel.