The following excerpt from the novel “The Dogs of Arroyo” was published in the anthology “The Caribbean Writer.”
THE HILLS OF ARROYO
By Nicholas DiGiovanni
When it happened, it happened quickly, yet Harrison White could recall every detail. Sometimes it was as though someone had turned the episode into a movie, seen over and over until he had memorized every scene and every line of the screenplay. Other times, it was as if he hadn’t seen the movie for a long time, remembered the gist of it, but had the sequence of events confused into a jumble of images: the secluded mountain road, the boy at the roadside stand, the mangy wild dog, the machete’s glint, the strange woman, two small candles and statues seen through a dirty window, and a blurred rush of images seen through the glare of a car’s windshield.
Mostly, though, it was as if someone, somehow, had caught it all on film, then turned the film into slides, so each flickering frame could be stopped and frozen on the screen to be studied and analyzed, like a rare and exotic butterfly that’s been gently but cruelly pinned alive on a square of cardboard.
Frame one shows Harrison White in his rental car, pulled over to the side of the two-lane paved road called Highway 3. It is early morning but the car’s windows are closed; the air-conditioning is turned on full-blast — it’s uncomfortably warm and steamy outside, even at nine in the morning. White is examining a road map, trying to figure the best way to get from the small town of Arroyo back to the city of San Juan, where he has an important appointment that afternoon.
The next frame in the sequence of slides shows White folding the map after deciding that cutting across and over the mountains, taking a two-lane road called Highway 15, appears to be a shortcut to the expressway, Highway 52, which runs from Ponce northwest to the sprawling town of Cayey in the center of the island, then northward to the old capital.
In the next frame we see the rental car – a small white Ford Tempo with slightly dented Puerto Rico license plates – as it winds through the narrow and crowded streets of Arroyo. White follows the hard-to-follow signs for Highway 15, then begins climbing slowly up the steep road into the foothills to the north on the outskirts of town.
Next there are several frames showing what White sees out the windows as he drives the car up the hill, passing through a neighborhood where he is surprised to see such a disparity of wealth in such proximity. He rounds a bend and comes upon a well-maintained house: rough white stucco with a red tile roof, surrounded by cast-iron gates and fences, the grounds landscaped with flowering plants, with gardenias, hibiscus and jasmine, orchids and carallita, the house shaded by palm trees or one of the brilliant flamboyant trees, with their scarlet-red leaves, that you see all over the island.
Right next door there is a small, slightly tilted shack constructed of mud-stained and cracked plywood and rusted sheets of tin. There are torn and dirty brown curtains in its unwashed windows. Its small unpainted porch is leaning and half-collapsed, apparently held together by thick green vines. The overgrown yard around the house is choked and smothered in dry weeds and grass, thick and tall.
He passes many of these houses. At each, inevitably, there is a rusted old Ford Fairlane or Chevy Biscayne or Plymouth Fury in the front yard; shabbily dressed children chase each other, or toss a ball, or play with a skinny, panting dog near the potholed street; unshaven middle-aged men sit in a row of wooden chairs in front of each house, always with a curious and somehow disconcerting glance as his rental car passes by and ripples the roadside weeds in its wake.
As the houses become more scattered, with more vacant land in between, and as the road begins to get steeper and more winding, White thinks maybe he has miscalculated. To look at the map, the stretch of Highway 15 between Arroyo and Cayey seemed only a short drive, maybe a half-hour ride, a good alternative to taking Highway 3 far to the southwest to get on the expressway near Ponce.
But the map didn’t show topography. It didn’t show – although he might have realized what he was getting himself into, if he had just looked up and ahead when he reached the turnoff outside of Arroyo – the imposing barrier looming between where White had been and where White was going.
Now he realizes for the first time how high these mountains really are. The road has narrowed and seems wide enough at some points for only one car at a time to pass. In order to traverse this mountain range in the center of Puerto Rico, the engineers and construction crews had been forced to follow a serpentine route – you can’t, after all, build a straight road right up the side and over the top of a mountain – and the road slithers up the mountainside, with short straight runs ending in hairpin curves, followed by another short straight stretch and then quickly by another sudden sharp turn.
At many of the curves, nothing more than a crumbling old stone wall or a broken metal guardrail separates the road from an stunningly steep and straight drop into a deep ravine. Several times White feels the shiver of vertigo as his car scales the mountain road and he rounds a curve, trying to stay as close as possible to the mountain wall, looking out for miles over the brown dry hills and increasingly tiny houses and the distant town of Arroyo below, so high that he can occasionally catch glimpses of the blue-green waters of the Caribbean near Guuyama and Salinas, the air so crisp and sharp that he can even detect the churning wakes of cruise ships out on the gentle smooth sea, so high that he might even be able to see all the way across to Venezuela, if not for the curve of the earth – he is so high and the view so crisp and clear.
He now realizes this route is going to take somewhat longer than he had expected, but he still has plenty of time. White’s appointment in San Juan with Tito Cochino is not until four o’clock, and it is still mid-morning. Once he reaches the highway at Cayey, it should take him forty-five minutes on the expressway to reach San Juan, then undoubtedly another forty-minutes to make it through the heavy traffic on the tangle of highways circling new San Juan and to navigate the crowded streets and slow-moving traffic in Old San Juan, where he is to meet Cochino at the El Convento on Calle Cristo for dinner, drinks and, hopefully, the signing of their final contract.
Just after he rounds another sharp bend, about halfway up the mountain, White comes on a small roadside stand where a woman is selling bags of oranges and bunches of plantains (both green and yellow) and something called coco frios. During his two days of driving around the island, he had passed many of these roadside vendors — at least half, just like this crude stand, with hand-painted signs advertising coco frios. He wasn’t sure what this was. He assumed coco might have something to do with coconuts. As for frios, he figured that meant cold, as in frigid. He guessed the stands might be selling cups of cold coconut milk. This seemed like a good guess and it seems like not a bad idea, to stop and get something cool to drink.
White pulls over near the stand, gets out of the car, and asks the woman, Coco frio, por favor? Uno.
Sitting behind her on a large rock is a boy White had not noticed from the car, a skinny kid with straight brown hair and dark skin.
Without saying a word, the boy, about 12, reaches into an old red-and-white plastic picnic cooler and takes out a large brown coconut, then reaches under a black wooden table and pulls out a gleaming steel machete. With a sharp movement he swings the machete blade, driving it into the top of the coconut cradled between his bony knees, and with three quick slashes carves a big notch out of the fruit. He takes another tool, sort of like a drill bit, and hammers it into the notch with the handle of the machete. The boy hands the coconut to the woman; White figures she must be the boy’s mother. The woman reaches into a cardboard box, takes out a straw and unwraps it, then sticks the straw into the hole the boy has drilled into the top of the coconut.
One dollar, she says in English as she hands it to him.
As White gives her the dollar bill, he looks past her to the boy. He is now sitting on top of the closed cooler, staring straight at him with dark eyes, not appearing to even blink, a slight grin on his face. He is wearing torn brown Levis, old black Pro Keds sneakers, and a white Roberto Clemente T-shirt with a colorful cartoon caricature of the great baseball star in his Pittsburgh Pirates cap. The boy points the sharp tip of the machete straight at him and then says in clear English with only a slight accent: God bless America! Behind the boy, nailed to a cracked wooden partition, is a rusted old Coca-Cola sign – rum, coffee, bottled water and Coca-Cola might be all the Puerto Ricans ever drink, White thinks – and a faded poster: Muerte al imperialismo Yankee. Death to Yankee imperialism.
Then the boy smiles at White again and shouts Saludos y buen viaje! The boy has wished him a good trip and a good life – but the American businessman, looking over the boy’s shoulder at the poster, suspects the boy doesn’t really mean it.
Hoping this budding Che Guevara hasn’t let the air out of the rental car’s tires when he wasn’t looking, White says adios to the mother and walks back to the rental car. The tires are still inflated. The road map is where he left it on the front seat. His camera is still in the glove box, along with the car-rental agency’s registration and insurance cards. The engine starts immediately when White turns the ignition key, so he knows no one has poured Puerto Rican cane sugar into the tank.
He locks the doors, turns up the air, and continues up the mountain road, the position of the sun over the hills and the clock on the dashboard both confirming that it is now nearly noon. He figures he must be close to the expressway. And he still has four hours before his appointment with Cochino.
After he has driven another quarter-mile or so, three or four straight stretches and three or four sharp curves, White comes upon a small roadside chapel, a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who once made glorious roses bloom in the cloak of a simple peasant.
There is room to pull the car off the road and park in front of the tiny church; White stops there and gets out of the car, deciding to drink his coco frios and eat a pastry he purchased at a bakery in Arroyo — a flaky crust that is filled with slightly bitter cheese and very sweet guava jelly.
The chapel is made of pale tan stucco, the wood framing around its edges painted a glossy red. Its design is simple – it looks almost like an old one-room schoolhouse in America, simple and plain, except for the red trim and a small ornate steeple at the peak of the roof above the front door.
There is a low wall around the chapel and a black iron gate at the entrance; the gate is open, but when he tries the door of the chapel, it is locked.
White looks through a small window and can make out two short rows of wooden pews, a simple altar adorned with a pair of brass candlesticks and a wooden crucifix – and, just below the window, a long shelf lined with small figures of saints. He recognizes hard-working and unquestioning Joseph, who is holding the hand of young Jesus; gentle Francis of Assisi, who has a sparrow perched on his outstretched arm; the two great martyrs Sebastian and Jerome, consumed by their holy agony; pale and rapturous Teresa of Avila, who clutches a radiant bouquet of pure white flowers; the kindly St. Anthony, with the Infant cradled in his outstretched hand; and several statues of the Virgin Mother herself – scared and humble young Mary visited by the archangel, pure and sweet Mary cradling the perfect infant, long-suffering Mary weeping at the foot of the cross, Mary blissful and peaceful as she ascends to heaven; tres reyes, the Three Wise Men, bearing their exotic gifts and their burdensome knowledge; la Virgin del Pozo (who appeared to the child Juan Angel Collado in 1953 and some say still appears there); and the Baptist, San Juan himself – the visitor does not know, but today is the day of the great saint’s feast, and today the faithful will walk backwards into the sea three times and this will bring them good luck.
This is why the chapel door is kept locked, to keep out touristos like him. In the gift shops of Old San Juan, the famed Puerto Rican santos, small figures of saints carved and whittled by peasant craftsmen, sell for hundreds of dollars, even thousands of dollars for chipped and primitive and supposedly antique santos like the ones he has seen locked into a glass cabinet in a gift shop on the main plaza of Ponce and now is admiring through the windows of this mountain chapel.
The rear of the chapel comes within ten feet of a sheer cliff over a ravine, which opens into a hillside field planted with banana trees; he thinks this might be where the woman’s plantains are grown and harvested. Beyond that grove he can see more farm fields, hazy and shimmering in the noonday sun, with crops of tobacco and corn and guava and pineapple and cocoa and coffee and yucca and more bananas planted on terraced ledges sweeping down to the flat plains at sea level near the Caribbean.
In those more distant fields are men working in the sugar-cane fields; White cannot see them so far way, but he knows they are there – here and there, in the sky over those flat stretches, clouds of black smoke drift in the sea breeze; White can see flames, dark orange slivers of fire slithering through the fields and hills. These fires have been lit to clear the brush to make it easier to cut the cane; a fringe benefit is that the sugar produced by the burned cane is the secret ingredient in the island’s smooth but strong dark rum. The sweet aroma of the burning sugar rises into the breeze and drifts up the valley and ravines to the mountains, mingling with the pungent scents of the tobacco and coffee, blending with the sweetness of the ripening plantains, combining with the soft salty wind and the scorching 12 o’clock sun to leave White feeling sleepy and almost intoxicated.
He sits down behind the chapel, looks out over the lush hills, and eats his guava pastry and sips the still-chilled coconut milk, which is not as sweet as he imagined it would be.
Then White hears two sounds: the chapel door creaking slightly as someone closes it and a car door slamming shut. He runs around to the front of the chapel. There is no one there; but he hears the quick beat of pounding feet and the click and rustle of kicked gravel; someone is running away, running down the mountain road.
White shouts and runs back to where he parked the car. He opens the front door on the passenger side, and leans in and opens the glove compartment – his camera is still there. But on the front seat, torn and shredded, is the road map. There appears to be no other damage to the car.
Then White remembers hearing what he had thought was the chapel door being closed. He locks the rental car and takes the keys, then approaches the chapel, hesitating for a moment at the gate when he realizes someone might still be there, hiding inside. But when he tries the door, it is still locked – or has been locked again.
He goes to the window he looked in before. The wooden santos are still there on the shelf – but every one has been moved, turned away from the window, their backs toward him so he can no longer see their faces.
On the simple altar, the two candles have been lit and are still burning, a thin plume of smoke rising from each.
Between them is a dead dog, its head cut off, wax dripping off the candles and hissing into a small pool of fresh blood.
White is now anxious and unnerved – in part because he still doesn’t know how far he is from the highway and feels he now has to hurry to get to San Juan, in part because of the strange sly boy with the shiny machete, because of the shredded road map, because of the fading footsteps he is sure he heard, and because of the mystery of this place where the mountain folk believe in voodoo and magic and sacrifice dogs at bloody altars but also whittle saints out of wood and build shrines to a Virgin who made roses bloom where no rose had bloomed before.
The smoke you see in the pink sky at sunset might be smoke from the sugar-cane fields, but it could be the smoke of a car in flames, maybe stolen, maybe just broken beyond repair, doused with gasoline and ignited, its black burned frame left amid the clutter in some ravine filled with weeds and flowers and rusted old cars.
The Caribbean might wash over you like a warm bath, like holy water, cleansing your soul of all worries and fears, smooth and steady waves caressing tired muscles and refreshing tired hearts, but one step into those whispering waves might bring the sting of the man-of-war, or the jolt of a sea urchin’s needle, or even a taste – when you swallowed some of the salty water – of the mingled blood of someone who drowned at this very beach and was never found, or even the powdered dust of the bones of sailors and explorers who thought they had finally found Cathay but died when their ships hit hidden reefs, the flesh of their drowned bodies chewed by crabs, their bones smoothed and polished by the current and twisted like driftwood, then pulverized and turned to dust by the surf and winds and sand, and this dust blended into the water, and you might even taste this bone dust in your mouth as you drift like a dead man in the waves at Arroyo beach.
In the shadows of a luxury hotel, where pale and pudgy tourists sip five-dollar pina coladas served by smiling waiters, there are slums where brown dirty drinking water drips out of rusted spigots and the waiters and maids walk home late at night and curse the filthy touristos who treat then like they are animals. Muerte!
In this strange land, the trade winds whisper secrets, and caves are hidden deep within the mountains, and wild dogs live in the those caves, and these dogs roam in packs along the roadsides, where one-legged beggars limp up to cars to wash windshields with dirty damp rags right outside the grand museum at Ponce, where a Christ by Goya hangs.
Harrison White is speeding along the narrow mountain road, rushing now to make it in time for his meeting in San Juan with Tito Cochino.
White has become more familiar with the twists and turns on this road, the straightaways and curves coming at regular and predictable intervals. He has learned to ease his foot off the gas pedal and hug the right side of the road as he enters and rounds each bend, then to accelerate as he comes out of the bend into the next straight run, so he is driving slightly faster than he was before.
And this is where the slide show, the individual frozen frames, now becomes like rough takes of a movie, all crazy angles and bursts of light and sudden shadows, speeding through the spinning reels so quickly that you must watch carefully to comprehend what has been captured on the film.
As White drives the white rented Ford around another curve, a small black dog darts out in front of his car.
It’s one of those wild dogs. He has seen them all over the island, and he has learned to watch out for them by the roadsides, but he had not encountered any on this road until this moment, so he is not ready to react quickly.
White swerves the car to the left to avoid hitting the dog. but then instinctively remembers the cliff dropping off on the other side of the road. He jerks the steering wheel back to the right, the back wheels of the car fishtailing in the dirt and gravel.
But there’s a stone cliff to the right, and the dog is still there in the car’s path, so White’s reflexes and instincts kick in, and he swerves the car back to the left again.
A peasant, apparently an old man, is walking along the roadside, right at the edge of the ravine. He’s carrying some kind of bundle on his back. It looks like a canvas sack. It may be filled with sugar-cane stalks. Perhaps he’s taking bunches of green bananas down the road to the woman’s stand.
The American can’t see the peasant’s eyes because he is wearing a tan straw hat, and the wide brim is pulled down over his forehead. He’s wearing loose-fitting white pants and a tan-colored blouse. His arms, held above his head to steady the bundle, are surprisingly muscular.
The wild dog trots toward the peasant, who begins to lean over, apparently to put down his load. He doesn’t seem at all aware of the car heading toward him. White yanks the wheel to the right once more. The peasant finally gazes toward the car, with a look of surprise. The rear of the car fishtails again as White tries to avoid hitting the man and the dog. The back of the rear of the car spins out in the loose gravel, and White hears a thump — one dull thump.
Here the movie should be in slow motion. The car doesn’t hit the peasant with great impact, but it’s enough, a nudge, a caress, a kiss. The man loses his balance, tumbles to his right, appears to try to grab his pack, then reaches for the low stone wall at the edge of the cliff. But he can’t regain his balance. He tumbles over the edge.
He was there. Now he’s not. Gone. White quickly stops the car, throws open the door, and runs to the wall. He doesn’t see the dog anywhere.
This doesn’t seem real. This can’t be happening. He looks down over the stone wall, down into the ravine. It’s at least a forty-foot drop. At the bottom, he sees piles of boulders and thick clumps of weeds. He sees no sign of the peasant. And he doesn’t hear anything – no moans, no cries, no calls for help, no screams. Nothing is moving. He knows the peasant must be dead.
The bundle the man was carrying is on the ground at the edge of the cliff. It has split open. It’s filled with green bananas. White kicks the pack down into the ravine and watches as it bounces down the sheer stone wall, then hits the rocks and scatters, then is also lost in the thick weeds.
White’s first impulse is to climb down the cliff, to see if the peasant is still alive, then call an ambulance or call the police.
But where would he find a telephone on this mountain? Should he drive all the way down the mountain road to Arroyo to get help? What about his appointment with Cochino? It has to be well past noon.
He didn’t really hit the man hard, just bumped him and nudged him enough so he lost his balance and fell. And who knows? Maybe the man didn’t really die from falling down the cliff. Maybe he had a heart attack or a stroke. Maybe the car didn’t even really hit him hard enough to push him over the edge. Maybe he died of natural causes. Maybe he’s actually alive — bruised and hurt, but alive.
White doesn’t want to deal with the undoubtedly corrupt island police, especially in a small town like Arroyo. He doesn’t know anyone here. How would he find a good lawyer? Who would make sure he was treated justly? Who would look out for an American businessman? Cochino? Maybe, but he has yet to even meet the famous man. What if he is put in jail, even for a brief time? White imagines the jails must be horrible on this island. He doesn’t want to go to jail, not here. And the sun is dropping in the sky. He has to hurry if he is going to make it to his appointment with Cochino.
White looks down over the cliff once more. Nothing moves. If he leaves, no one will know. There is no sound. He looks around again. He can drive to San Juan, return the rental car, take a cab to his meeting. No one will ever know.
Perhaps the old man lived alone, but maybe he had family who might report him missing. But who would think to look for him down in this deep ravine? Who could possibly find the body? The old man will be reported missing, there will be some sort of search, but the evidence of what happened will never be found. The old man’s corpse will quickly decompose and dissolve in this heavy endless heat. Before long, there will be nothing left but bones, bleached and baked, hidden in those thick weeds.
There’s no reason to tell anyone, no reason to stay. Just get back in the car, find the damned highway, and try not to get lost on the way to San Juan.