Floating Kingdom: A Novel
From Floating Kingdom:
The big river came out of its long coma with a roar. Beyond the distant flashes of lightning, the hollow bass notes of thunder echoing from the west, there was the sensation of tension building. The heavy muddy flow had been quickening the past few weeks under the sudden wild storms upriver. The current reverberating through the canyon rapids was there for all to hear on both sides of the border. Far upstream, for the first time in years, water trickled down the rocky beds of the old arroyos. Up north, the spring thaws over-filled the reservoirs. Days before the big storm, people had been sleeping fitfully, waking up in the middle of the night, their hearts racing as if they'd been chased in their dreams. After living with drought for so many years, the possibility of remission was greeted with suspicion, another of nature's bad turns. Even as levels had been visibly rising for days, the sudden, crashing swell out of the mouth of the canyon in the middle of the night came as a shock.
For Lucio Seguila the morning after the big downpour was like Navidad and Three Kings' Day and New Year all rolled into one. He sat on a straight-backed chair out on the ledge in front of his house and gazed down at the river. He thanked the stars, his santo patroncito San Cristóbal and God himself for the luck to be out of it. Never mind that nine people crossing the river had died on him the previous night. That it had been years since anyone, not one single person, had drowned while crossing under his guidance.
Blissfully unmindful of human tragedy, the sun rose for the first time that week into a luminous, clear sky. The wind stopped howling through the canyons. The swollen river slowed to a manageable flow, carrying along with it a surprising bounty from the west. And Seguila was grateful. It was as if the gringo prankster Santa Claus himself, the original old king of joys and toys and good things to eat for all the little angelitos and diablitos of the world, was making, in the middle of the summer monsoons, an unseasonable stop below his house high on the south Peregrinas slope just beyond the point where the big river escapes from the constraints of the canyon onto the wider channel flowing eastward.
Seguila had discretely scraped the mud off his boots and put on a clean plaid shirt and stiff new American jeans. He shrugged off the small ache of unease that threatened to cloud this fine morning. Nobody could have predicted the abrupt, overwhelming rise of the current. It was natural to be cheerful at the sudden clearing and the warming of the new morning. If one was dry and warm and alive, one was a survivor; that alone was cause for rejoicing. Still, some occasions were best celebrated privately. Life limps on.
He sipped gritty coffee brewed the way he liked it, the grounds boiled in a clay pot along with sticks of cinnamon and chunks of raw brown piloncillo sugar. His youngest daughter Luz made it for him, even though everyone else in the family thought it was too much trouble. Let them drink Nescafé, he thought.
Luz stood behind his chair and combed his tangled white hair, pulling back the long strands along the top and sides. With a pair of scissors she snipped the jagged ends and trimmed his sideburns, then gathered his hair with a rubber band into a single hank at the nape.
"It's so soft," she said. "Like feathers."
"Comes from your abuelita americana. Grandma Sally's hair was like silk."
Luz tilted her face toward the sun. "I'm glad the storm has passed. There were screams in the night. I could hear them over the roar of the water and the thunder."
Even in the best of times, Seguila knew to keep things to himself because there were many who might question his good fortune. Especially when the group that was in his care the night before, nine people whom nobody knew at all, but which included two women and a baby, had drowned in the dumbest of ways, like turkeys looking up at the sky, their mouths open in wonder watching the water come down so that in no time at all, a few seconds really, the world turned milky right in front of their eyes.
Dumb as they were, they shouldn't have been traveling so far from home, across the river, trying to make their way north. That journey is for the smart ones, the kind that can survive with a different language and look and customs, who know how to slip around and not be noticed. Not for Indians from the central mesa who are like children and who can barely speak Spanish much less make their way in the north.
They were a nice group that Lucio Seguila, the most trustworthy coyote in the area, was taking across. Five of them were family, with the kids and a baby still at the breast, and the abuelita with knees that seemed to have locked in one position so she walked all stiff and bowlegged and most of the time she had to be carried piggy-back on her son's waist. "Arre caballito!" she would giggle. She was very childish for being so old, maybe seventy five, and she acted like she was a girl, laughing and calling her strong grandson Papi instead of Hijito.
The other four were men, strong guys who were not part of the family but who should have protected the weaker people in the group. But two were from Guadalajara and therefore expected to be selfish and greedy. In any case, they died just as easily as if they had tried to be heroes, drowning because instead of saving themselves like Lucio Seguila, they tried to go after the two cardboard suitcases and the backpack and the slim vinyl attaché case the man who was head of the family and was the old woman's son, had been carrying.
They were halfway across the river, making progress in the dark because Seguila was a good guide, when there was the roar of the giant wave surging down the gorge and everyone was choking and gagging, looking up at the sky in some kind of stupor and then their bodies were taken over by the current. They died because they were either greedy or impatient or slow-witted. Not like Lucio Seguila who knows when to get up and go and also that good things come to those who know how to wait.