Horse Latitudes

By Morris Collins

MP Publishing
August 2013


This time of morning, after the cocks have been crowing for two hours and the men and women have clumped in silently in their flannel work shirts and their straw hats and carrying their cane-dulled machetes, the café is nearly empty. Mirabelle stands and scrubs at the wash basin. Her hair is tied back and her hands are already red from scrubbing. The predawn rush of coffee and eggs and baleadas for breakfast is over and the café is empty but for her. A gecko scurries across the concrete floor, up the pale blue wall. Through the open door, the street burns with dusty heat, but it is cool in the shaded blue of the concrete café and Mirabelle watches two men who lie on the raised sidewalk. Still, from last night, they are too drunk or sick on guaro to go to work. They will be lucky not to lose their jobs—or maybe they lost them already. Mirabelle turns from the door and begins to cut avocados.

She does not ever remember such constant heat. Rio de Caña sits low in the valley and the mountains to the north and the cane fields to the south and west form a basin that usually holds a cloud cover of cool air over the town. Now, though, the valley withers. The banks of the Rio Sulaco, the river that runs to the sea, hang low and muddy, balloon with swamp gas and bottle flies. The fruit trees in town have already fallen fallow, the fruit gone brown and knobby, and it must be the same in the forest, because people have seen howler monkeys prowling the outer villages. The Holy Mother in Her vestments of parrot feathers waits each night by Mirabelle's bed.

For months, She had been absent. Mirabelle had not seen Her since Rosa's death when She had appeared one morning under Rosa's bed and had not left until after the girl died. Those days, during the illness, She had come small and horrible, with Her gallows noose cinched around Her neck and trailing between Her bare breasts. Her black hair dragged through the dust as She crawled on Her hands and knees about the floor. And then She disappeared. Mirabelle did not see Her in the mirror as she stepped out of the shower, she did not hear Her singing to her as she hung Mr. Bernal's laundry, or find notes from Her in her diary.

But now She had returned. Each night Mirabelle woke to Her, the Holy Mother, sitting by her bed, working Her red coral rosary. She did not speak. She bobbed and nodded in the sweating dark, She thumbed Her beads and wept to Herself. In the moonlight that attended Her, Her dress of parrot feathers glistened a moving blue and purple like the colors of the sea over the reef line at dusk. Her hair was hidden beneath Her macaw's crest, and though Mirabelle could sometimes smell the hot milk about Her bosom, she could no longer see Her breasts. Thankfully, the Holy Mother had abandoned the gallows weeds of Her double aspect—Ixtab, the suicide goddess. She had not begun speaking to her yet, but Mirabelle knew that She soon would. Sometimes at night, Mirabelle saw the Mother's blue parrot's tongue flick and wet Her beak. She had come as She always did, Mirabelle felt sure, to carry news or serve as portent and all one could do was wait.

During the day Her visitations seem frail and distant, a fragile skeleton of fever. But Mirabelle is not sick—she takes her temperature in the morning and knows now, after five years of this, that she must let her visions unfold as they will. Before she left for America, Yolanda spoke of the doctors there, how they had medicine that might improve her condition, make the visions vanish entirely. That was the only time Mirabelle saw the Holy Mother angry. Now, though, cutting avocados in the café, she feels as she usually does in the morning: a person apart from the girl who wakes each night to a goddess. For years the visions were enough to assuage her boredom, but now with Yolanda gone and Jose dead, and Rosa dead too, there is just Mr. Bernal and the café customers and the days feel real, certainly more real than the nights—they are long and dull and lonely. She is an object, she knows, of pity and fear. The townspeople feel toward her, she thinks, much as she does toward the Mother: some mix of love and constant dread.

The avocado meat piles on the cutting board. She scoops it up and fills the wooden bowl on the counter. The green meat is warm and fresh, thick against her fingers—she wipes them on her apron and begins to slice another avocado. She listens to the slick and cut of the knife across the board. The room smells of torn fruit, coffee, and eucalyptus. The men in town do not bother her the way they do other women. She has been old enough for years now, but they keep their distance. She heard their conversations in the street, even about Rosa, who was only thirteen. Last night Mr. Bernal touched her wrist and told her that she was beautiful. The Holy Mother's feathers smelled of mold and dander, jungle rot.

At first she does not look up when Soto enters the café. Everyone is at work in the fields and she assumes the footfall on the threshold belongs to one of the drunks. If she does not acknowledge him, he might leave soon. When she does glance up, finally, he is still standing there, Soto, with his ragged beard and dirty clothes and sheathed machete. Behind him, through the door, the street seems impossible with white heat, desert heat, a heat unknown to the jungle. When he speaks, his dry voice rasps like a snake uncoiling through dead leaves.

"Good morning," he says. "May I have some water?"

Mirabelle pours a glass from a clay pitcher and places it on the counter.

"Please sit down," she says.

He drinks and she refills his glass. He drinks again.

"Will you sit down with me?"

His voice, now that his throat is wet, sounds deeper—not a rasp at all, but a baritone. Echoing, performed, like a man calling from the bottom of a stone well. A clown's voice, or a fool's.

"No," she says. "I have to work. I may not sit."

He turns a slow circle in the room with his arms outstretched, gesturing at all the empty tables. When he faces her again he is smiling, and beneath the grime his eyes flick back and forth across her face like a serpent's tongue. He has, she thinks, a pleasant smile.

"This is work? This is busy? But there's no one here. You are alone."

Mirabelle finds herself affecting the posture of the girls in the markets: hands on her hips and right hip cocked out, her scowl giving way to a smile. Now that their flirtation has ended, she expects him to turn away from her and sit down or go back into the street, but he stays standing. She begins again to cut avocados. She cuts them and he is silent, the knife clicks and clicks on the board, and still she does not hear his strange voice. She piles the cut fruit into a bowl, covers it, places it in the plastic ice cooler and begins to cut again. She does not look up and the world is now parched of any sound but her knife on the board, the meat of the avocado slitting and falling, her shallow, quickening breath. She reaches to the wooden fruit bowl for the next avocado and finds that there are none. When she raises her eyes he still stands there, haloed in the light through the door gilding the risen dust.

"Tell me," he says in his carnival voice, "tell me why you do not work in the cane."

"I don't know. I prefer this," Mirabelle says.

"That is not an answer. It is an inclination. Certainly, you would prefer to do nothing at all but drink wine and sit in your swimming pool and watch television. But you are here, right now, standing in this cool café instead of laboring in the fields. Why?"

"I don't have a swimming pool or a television," Mirabelle says.

He laughs and it is not an unpleasant laugh. She finds herself smiling too as if she'd said something foolish, though she knows she did not. No one in town has a swimming pool. Even so, she smiles as if they have shared some joke and feels then, suddenly, that the Mother is at hand, or near. The Mother, as She always does during the daytime, feels like madness. Mirabelle looks past him about the room, and the room is empty but for them. Still, a madness trembles there, whether hers or his she does not know. Perhaps, as with her evenings with Mr. Bernal, as with everything maybe, she has misunderstood this moment.

The man steps forward and snatches a gecko off the counter. Its color changes from green to brown in his hand.

"Look at this petty evasion," Soto says.

He opens his hand and the gecko scurries up his arm and over his dirty shirt, down his black-and-gray camouflage pants to the floor.

"After a while, an unanswered question becomes a lie, don't you think?"

"Mr. Bernal," Mirabelle says. "The owner of this café. He wanted his daughter to learn English so that one day they could live in America. He hired me to teach her. After she died of cholera, he kept me on in her place."

Soto nods and blinks and for a moment she thinks he is holding back tears, though his eyes are dry.

"Cholera is a filthy disease," he says. "Disgusting and shameful. Shitting yourself until there is nothing left, until you are empty. I do not know what I find more frightening: to die that shamefully or to realize, once you are about to die, once you are empty, that all you have within you, all you ever had and were and imagined, was shit. And now that it is gone you are even less. Everything is shit and you are nothing without it."

No, Mirabelle thinks, you are wrong. I see through you now. The Mother has warned me of you. There is more in the world than that.

"There is Our Lady," she says. "She is the Lady of Our Lord and the Lady of the Gallows and She comes with mercy and splendor."

Mirabelle looks down sharply at the counter. She knows better than to speak of the Mother. She has seen her brother lying in the street with flies filling his mouth and she has held Rosa as she shivers and cracks her own bones into oblivion. She knows Her words, the Mother's words, peddle the world's madness, and their meaning for a man like him must long ago have fallen forfeit. He smiles his pretty smile and his scorpion eyes glint the color of golden rum. He reaches out to touch her hand, and, when she does not recoil, returns his hand to his side.

"Do not worry, darling. I too believe in mercy."

Mirabelle grasps for an avocado, but the bowl is empty.

"When I first saw you, I thought that you might be a missionary," she says and realizes as she says it that it's true. Beneath his smile and carnival voice he carries the Mother's terrible melancholy. He could hold her, she feels sure, and weep.

"I did not mean to be vulgar," he says. "Please do not think that I intend to offend you. It is just such a sad story you tell me. This country is ruined by all of the simplest things. Cholera. Malaria. Bad baby formula. Did you know in the States there is no cholera?"

She nods. Yolanda taught her English. She has heard all the stories of wonder. In Miami you will not die of fever, you will not be killed in the street by Mara Salvatrucha. There are no buzzards in the cane or fires on the roads. Then why hasn't Yolanda written in months? Why have the medical aid missions never reached Rio de Caña? The world is full of stories like market trash: you haggle them down to what you think they're worth, what you're willing to believe, and leave with less.

"I do not believe in America," Mirabelle says to the man standing before her. "And I do not believe the people who try to sell it to me."

"Tell me," Soto says. "Do you resemble Bernal's daughter?"

"She was only thirteen."

"Do you think that one person can ever replace another?"

"I don't know what you mean," Mirabelle says. His serious questions bounce on his lunatic cadences. She feels certain that he is luring her toward some inevitable conclusion, something out there in the heat, and with every answer she is going to it.

"It is a simple question," he says. "Can one person live for another? Do you have a sister?"

"Yes. In America."

"Your sister lives in America?"

"Yes. In Miami."

"And you, have you ever been to America?"


"So how do you know your sister lives there, if you yourself have not seen her?"

"She used to send money home."

"Of course," he says. "That is conclusive. Well, wouldn't you like to join her there?"

This time she laughs. His spell is broken. Who does he think she is? Does he think she's a child? It's true, in some things she feels a child, but she knows a coyote when she sees one.

"Go away. I have no need for coyotes. I am happy here." She tries to sound honest as she says it.

He steps back from her with his hands outstretched in some mock display of offense. His every move is unknowably strange.

"A coyote? Is that what you think I am? Mirabelle, you are unfair to me."

The Mother is suddenly near again. She feels Her sweating in the corner, smells the molting feathers and jungle rot. The Mother has prophesied: when he calls you, you must answer.

"How did you know my name?"

"Mirabelle," Soto says. "This is no accidental encounter. I have come all this way to find you. All the way from the Orphanage of Santa Qultepe of La Paz."

She does not say anything. This is wrong, certainly. He is madness, he speaks in a voice out of the grotto, he blinks the scorpion's eyes, but he has called her by name and the Mother is no use now. She has said, you are an instrument to the suffering children.

"Mirabelle," he says. "Come here, Mirabelle. I want to show you something."

He walks to the door, to the heat there, and she finds herself following. He steps into the street and she crosses the threshold and looks where he points and sees the six small children sitting on the ground against the concrete wall. They are dirty and sun-scorched. Their dry lips peel like garlic skin.

"Mirabelle, if you come with me," Soto says, "to the Orphanage of Miami, these will be some of your charges. Please now, they are very thirsty. Will you minister to them?"