Illustrations by Jesse Gelaznik
There’s a fire pit the men sit by at night in the Red Iguana, a restaurant on the edge of town in Copán, Honduras. They roast meat, smoke their cigars, and drink beer and Nicaraguan rum while the stars intensify and their wives put the children to bed.
I was there trying to purchase a kinkajou for a friend. You can buy kinkajous as pets in the United States, but in Honduras the baby golden bears have a different temperament. For example, they do not like liquor. They never bite. They sleep both at night and during the day, and are awake in the mornings and evenings. And their prehensile tails are much stronger and nimbler than those of the American-bred species. If you want to keep a kinkajou as a pet, the place to get one is Honduras, and you must buy a baby fresh from the nipple and hand-feed it for as long as possible. It grieves at separation from its mother, but I have always been careful in my business not to buy a baby unless I see the mother with my own eyes. Otherwise the natives will kill the animal for its babies.
By the fire was a young man, Juan: handsome, slender, full of bravado and enthusiasm, like a Latino Jimmy Page in the famous picture of Page gesturing grandly to the name LED ZEPPELIN painted on the side of their Boeing 727. The old men were teasing him because he planned to marry. He was a novio. Another man there, Javier, a friend of mine from Nicaragua who was born in Copán—they teased him too, because Nicaragua is considered déclassé by the Hondurans, and he was thought to have stepped down in the world by establishing his trade in an inferior, poorer country—stood up for Juan.
“There’s one way to learn,” Javier said, rising to his feet and smoking a long Cuban Romeo and Julieta from a case I had purchased earlier that week. I had one too. They would last us three hours out in the cool night. “Let him find out for himself. There’s no rules in love. He could be one of the lucky ones.” Everyone laughed. We were all married men, divorced men, men who no longer knew where our wives lived, men of many children.
“Let me tell you a story,” a viejo said, quietly. Everyone hushed. I didn’t know this elderly gentleman in his worn yet elegant white suit, but he had ridden a horse down from the mountains three nights before, sitting with us each evening and drinking an inferior Honduran rum neat from a glass. He rarely spoke. I guessed he owned a coffee plantation. He looked like one of the Hondurans you met when you were up in the bush for days and suddenly you see the long rows of glossy, almost plastic-looking green coffee bushes lining the mountainside and then a clearing opens up and you find the low hacienda, spread out in many buildings, and behind it a drying plant and perhaps even a small roaster, and horses wander the property along with the usual farm animals and when you are invited to dinner—as you must be—you cannot tell which of the women are wives and which are sisters and which are mothers and which are daughters, except of course for the very young ones. The women sit at one side of the long dinner table in the tiled dining room, and the father and his sons are at the other. This viejo could have ten wives, for all we knew. It was not unheard of.
“You speak of love, and laugh.” He shook his head and sipped his rum. I felt embarrassed that I had been part of the teasing. “Two times I have married with a priest,” he said. “And these women, who you marry with a priest, you cannot divorce. This is the law of the church. The first time, I was like this one.” He removed his hat, nodded to the suddenly bashful novio, and then put it back on his head again. “Her name was Alfansa. A strange name. She was 15 when we married. I was 27. My father told me, ‘Wait eight years. No man should marry before age 35.’ It was excellent advice.” He gave a look to the novio, who blushed again, shrugged, and took a shot of rum. “This was a great love. So I could not ignore it. But a great love makes for a real husband. And a real husband is always suspicious, though he often suspects in the wrong place.”
There were grunts of agreement. The men nodded around the fire. Waitresses came and went silently, refilling our glasses, replacing our beers, their faces appearing like pale moths in the firelight and then disappearing again into the darkness. The cook roasting the beef cut great slices of red meat, passed around on a platter for our plates, and I thought of what it might have been like to sit on the beach after nightfall with Odysseus and his men, only a few ships left, lost, on an unknown island, passing the serving plate of sacrificial ox or lamb and drinking the thick red wine that they had to mix with water.
“It was a summer day. Summer is a dangerous season.”
“Yes,” said another old man. “Dangerous for love. Spring, too. Especially around the end of May.”
“De conejos [the rabbits],” another man said. We all looked at him curiously. He was sopping up blood from his plate with a tortilla, and nodding his head with the patience and mystery of a tortoise.
“Jules was his name, my friend. Also a strange name. He was my closest friend. He was like a brother to me.”
The old man took a silver case from his pocket, opened it, removed a brown cigarette about the size of a pinkie finger, and stood to light it in the flame of the roasting pit. The narcotic smell of a strange herb mixed with the sweet aroma of fat dripping into the fire and the strong perfumes of the Honduran mountain air.
“They went riding together. When I found them he was cutting her a grapefruit from a tree. He peeled it with his knife and handed her the slice. The juice was running from her full lips. You know, in a single gesture then, the way she smiles at him, what she is thinking. No doubt nothing has happened. But in her heart it has already taken place. I watched them, full of rage, but still hoping. They rested in the shade. He released the horses to roam the pasture. Then, sitting by him, his arm barely brushing her arm, just as I saw her say, ‘I will never consent’—she consented.”
A murmur rose among us, like a sudden wind: It is unusual for a man, especially in this part of the world, to admit he wears horns.
“Pleasure’s a sin,” the rabbit man said, “and sometimes sin’s a pleasure.” Wait, isn’t that from Byron? I thought. But we were speaking in Spanish, and these were Honduran farmers, peasants, and coffee pickers, not readers of British romanticism.
“I shot them both there in the field,” he said. “He died quickly, but she lingered. She said, ‘You are my first and most passionate love, you are my only love: This is nothing. Why?’ And her eyes closed. She breathed for a while, and I watched, impassive, until the end. When I inspected them more closely, I saw that I could have been mistaken. They were both fully clothed. I could not have been wrong about their embraces. But perhaps she was fighting him off? When I rolled her body over, I began to cry, and I saw a snake escape from beneath them. Then I thought, perhaps he was trying to kill the snake? Perhaps she had not said a word of what I supposed. Of course there is no way to know. It is equally as likely that if I had waited another ten minutes he would have died between her legs.”
I looked at the novio. He was angry. His eyes were dark and sparking. I didn’t know if he was enraged that his future bride might be compared with this woman, at the obvious injustice that had been done, or if there was a best friend of his own, whom he suspected. I too had lost a lover to a best friend, and, unlike the French writer Édouard Levé, who boasts, “I have not made love to the wife of a friend,” I have had lovers who were married to friends of mine, like so many friends and lovers before me. I had no moral opinion on the viejo’s first story. The second, though, was quite different, and uncanny.
“The second time the priest came to my house I was already a man of 50 and my father was dead. My brother’s farm had failed, through no fault of his own—there were three hurricanes that year.” Several of the old men nodded and held their hands to their brows as they remembered their own losses that season. “He came to live with me with his seven wives and 11 children. His eldest wife, Simone—she was from Brazil, not Honduran, and though she was the oldest she still had him the most nights in bed. When he met her she was a dancer in a club in Teguc [Tegucigalpa, the great, dangerous, furious capital city of Honduras], and she conceived a plan for me to marry one of his daughters. I was ignorant. I had many children of my own. Simone told me the girl—who was a beauty, with eyes like a jaguar—had a great passion for me; they pretended she was a girl from the city. Nothing affects an older man like the admiration of a young girl. But it had to be done with a priest, or else it would not be a sin. You see, she wanted to damn me, and to have me thrown in prison, so that her husband could take my estate. It is dangerous when women plan the marriage, that is when they direct the man, because of his own passion, into making his promise to love only one; the women conspire to make him believe he should marry, and they have chosen his wife in advance. Otherwise, why should he marry?
“He has everything to lose, and nothing to gain. A man marries so he can possess something he can never own, or so that he can be possessed by someone who will own him forever. Look at any married man, and you will see that it is true.”
There was rueful laughter. I watched the novio. He shook his head impatiently. This is old man’s talk and old man’s laughter, he was thinking to himself. My love is of an altogether original kind. But when he raised his drink, I thought I saw his hand was trembling very slightly, though it could have been the firelight.
“The priest married us. I took her that night. She was a virgin. The next morning Simone came to my bed with the police and the priest. They arrested me and, to my surprise, they also arrested the priest, who screamed in protest and fought with them. This was most indecorous behavior for a priest, and we were all disappointed. The girl, to her credit, insisted that she wanted me as her husband. But it was a simple case of sacrilegious incest and an unholy marriage. Also during the trial it came out that there had been lesbianism and masturbation practiced among the sisters, perhaps also involving their mother. You should never marry a woman who is not from your own country, my father often told my brother. But once she has you by the balls, that’s it—you’re screwed.”
The men were silent now. One or two relit their cigars. My own cigar had gone out and I decided I didn’t want it anymore, so I passed it to a teenage boy who sat at the edge of the restaurant, on the wooden steps. He smiled and ran to the fire pit to light it.
“I served five years in prison. When I returned to my estate all of my horses were gone and the wild had reclaimed my coffee plants. My brother had become a drunkard and Simone had run off with a Mexican truck driver who once transported our coffee. The children had grown up as wild as the coffee plants and the women were running the place, but everything was in great disrepair, like a camp. They had thrown my own wives and children out of the main house. I got my whip and put things in order. But it was three years before we had a paying crop. All because of the schemes of a woman, and a virgin beauty. Who, as it turned out, was probably a very accomplished lover of women herself. I tied her to a tree and beat her with a stick until she was half-dead. Not because it was just. But to demonstrate that a man had returned to the house.”
Many of the men around the fire had fallen asleep, with their chins on their chests. Javier was curled beneath his coat like a dog under a blanket. Others stared into the fire, thinking of their own lives, their own wives, their daughters, their troubles. My wife was divorcing me back in Kansas City, and I had no plans to return to the United States. The novio, though, was wide-awake, and he approached the viejo. He offered him a drink. The viejo took the drink, said, “To your happiness,” and drank. Then he handed the drink back to the handsome novio, who tossed the rest into the fire. It flamed up from the rum.
“She wants a priest,” the novio said. “So do I. I want a real marriage. Not one of the Indian stupidities.”
The viejo did not move or look at the young man. He was watching the fire now too.
“I have eight wives now living,” he said. “Eight of these Indian stupidities, as you say. I have children from all but one of them. But I would go back to prison for that night with the girl. She still lives on my farm. But she works with the horses. I do not let her come up to the house.”