Here are the “prelude” and the opening chapter of a novel, set in Puerto Rico, titled “The Dogs of Arroyo.” A section of this novel was published in the annual anthology “The Caribbean Writer.”
PRELUDE: THE EL YUNQUE NATIONAL ORCHESTRA
First we feel the rhythm. It begins with the slow and steady pulse of waves washing across the white beach at Guyama. The trade winds add layers and texture, dark whispering dreams and misty murmuring memories.
Next we hear the chirp of the tree frogs, called coqui, which sing the same thin sweet note, over and over.
There are thousands of coqui, maybe millions. Some of them are hidden in the shadows. Some are tucked under thick green leaves and some cling to the trunks of mango trees. All of them hum the same sweet note.
Some of the coqui will hop away if you come near. Others are made of plastic or plaster or stone or wood; they sit motionless in silent rows on dusty shelves of gift shops and churches and bedrooms in Ponce and Santurce, in Salinas and Arroyo, in Condado and Cayey, in dusty old San Juan and shiny new San Juan, quiet and still during the long hot day but erupting magically into song when the soft pink moon rises over the luminous bay.
When these tiny coqui sing, their song is so sweet that the touristos aren’t sure if what they’re hearing is the singing of Spanish-speaking angels, or the whispering waves, or the whistling wind, or the hum of the heat, or the secret hymn of the humid night, for all of these hings can be heard in the harmony of the invisible and magical coqui choir.
Tonight in El Yunque, deep in the rain forest, our orchestra assembles – look hard and you can see them in the mist of the waterfall called La Mina, that holy cascade, which is dirtied each day by the splashing tourist hordes but cleansed each night by these sacred songs.
Eshu is here, and that is good luck for us. He plays the maracas well. He is dressed in red and black. He says he will play the maracas tonight – but who can know his mood? Will Eshu be peevish or will he be pleased? Will he take from his pocket the forked branch? Or will he make his maracas rattle with the sacred rhythm? Will he make his maracas hiss like a snake?
Orisha arrives in his dapper white suit. All becomes calm. Harmony reigns. Peace prevails. Orisha begins to play his quatro, tenderly strumming its tight steel strings, caressing them with his long soft fingers as if he is combing Yemaya’s hair.
Yes, Yemaya is here, arrived from the sea, her long hair still wet, her gown as blue as the sea at Salinas, her dark arms cradling a bouquet of seven white flowers.
As Orisha strums, Yemaya smiles her beautiful sweet smile and joins him on the guiro, her long polished nails scraping and scratching the notches she has cut in the mahogany gourd. As she strokes her guiro, the music swells like the tide. Yemaya begins to dance, a swirling dance, and the waves rise higher, and our mother Yemaya moves faster and faster, her full hips swaying, her heavy breasts swinging, her red lips slightly parted, her favorite golden bracelet glowing, and her guiro keeps time, and the waves begin to churn, and storm clouds gather, and there is a loud crash of drums, and Chango struts up the forest path with his bata drums, pounding out thunder as lightning leaps from the skins.
Yemaya smiles at Chango. He is handsome in his white linen suit and white leather shoes, red roses blooming from each of his pockets. But Chango’s wives have also come to the rain forest tonight, all three beautiful wives — Oba, Oya and Oshun. They are known to be jealous. Yemaya must be discrete and must be careful not to lose her temper.
Chango carries his sword and ax, his knife and machete, his dagger and spear. He is drinking strong red wine. He is eating a yellow apple, even swallowing and chewing the stem and the seeds.
It is best to just let Chango play his three bata drums, his three jealous wives in thrall at his feet, for Chango commands the thunder and lightning, and when he dances his steps shake the earth.
Here are Chango’s loyal children. They each have the sign of the cross on their tongues. Their heads are shaved smooth. Their eyes glow like candles. They will tell us the future if we ask them.
Ogun now arrives, grey and hard as the hardest steel. He wears a tiger’s skins. A machete hangs from the red sash at his broad waist. In one thick hand, he holds a hammer and pick; he is so strong that he carries them lightly, as if they are twigs. In the other hand, he carries his heavy shovel. The shovel blurs as Ogun begins to dig, faster and faster, each strong thrust setting off tremors and quakes. His other arm swings the pick, and with each swift swing sparks explode, driving away the darkness, lighting up the trees of El Yunque.
The light is so bright that now we can see the shy coqui hidden in the leaves, and we can see the parrots on the treetops with their bright green feathers, and we can even the boa snakes, which are wrapped on the trunks like thick vines, moving slowly like vines slowly climbing. And sometimes the light lasts long enough that there is even time to count each one of the fifty types of orchids that bloom on El Yunque but only bloom at night when no one is there to see them.
Here, my friends, is Obatala, our great father. He wears a glowing white gown. He is beginning to sing a song. Obatala’s voice is deep and soothing. The others listen closely to the words.
He is singing the song of beginnings, of the days when the sun’s flames first warmed the shivering earth and the moon first made men weep and quiver. The words of Obatala’s song twist and flow like the streams that pour into La Mina’s river. Obatala sings of the endless desert and the bottomless sea, of mountains that pierce the very heavens and valleys that plunge beyond the depths of hell, of the most beautiful women and the ugliest men, of evil and good, of poor and rich, of calm and storm, of earth and stars, of cold and heat, of the death that follows life and the life that follows death, of the days so long ago when Obatala created all of these things.
Obatala wears a silver crown and carries a golden orb. There’s a ruby on his buckle and diamonds are sewn into the silk of his sash.
Obatala’s song ends with these words:
But who can see the yet-to-come?
Who can hear the coqui’s hum?
Who can hear the guiro’s strum?
Who can see what’s yet to come?
Babalu Aye, in his purple gown, limps slowly up the hill, leaning on his wooden crutch. He has brought his two loyal dogs. He is the answer to Obatala’s riddle. He can see what’s yet to come.
Babaul Aye sees blood on a road. He sees candles burning. He sees a man and a woman and a boy.
He sees Ochosi with his quiver and bow, sharp-eyed Ochosi sitting in a high-backed chair, waiting for his prey. He sees Ochosi casting spells, Ochosi’s head spinning on his neck, his third eye unblinking.
Sometimes Babula Aye’s visions come true. Sometimes they don’t. It cannot be predicted. It is safest to assume they will come true. They usually do.
The fog lifts and Ochun herself rises from the clear pool that bubbles calmly at the foot of La Mina. Ochun is humming songs of love. She is naked except for the crown of burnished gold on her head. She flicks a feathered fan. The feathers have been plucked from a peacock. Ochun begins to rub the rhythm sticks – the palitos click and snap in her soft tender hands and the orchestra is anxious to play.
The conductor is Olodumare himself. We cannot see the great one. He stands in the darkness atop La Mina, stands barefoot at the very edge of the slippery wet ledge. We cannot see him but the orchestra senses the wave of his powerful arms, the cock of his strong brow, the tilt of his handsome head, the sway of his huge body, the power of his unblinking stare. When Olodumare raises his baton, the orchestra will follow wherever he leads.
Up the trail now comes the jibaro band. The old men are stooped from their loads. But as they climb up El Yunque’s hills they slowly grow tall and strong and hopeful once more. Their deep wrinkles fade and their slumped shoulders straighten and their dull eyes shine as they set up their timbales and begin to knock the wooden blocks and slap the side-by-side drums and crash the cymbals with joy.
Down the trail from El Yunque’s peak come the old women, wearing black dresses cut from rough cloth. With each stride, their step becomes lighter. Their dry gray hair turns shiny black. With each step the old women take, a young woman dressed in a golden gown begins to appear.
The jibaro band plays faster and louder as the procession of beautiful young women draws near.
Each young woman nods shyly at Chango. Each dips and bows gracefully to Oludumare. Each draws a jealous glare from Yemaya as their soft fingertips and smooth palms slap and caress the tightened skins of the congas strapped to their swaying narrow hips.
Oludumare nods his head. The music begins. The great one leans forward to hear the sweet vibration of the cuatro’s strings. He nods his head and snaps his fingers in time to the beat of the bongos and the rap of the congas. He closes his eyes and shivers with pleasure as the maracas hiss and the timbales shake, and Chango conjures up thunder and Yemaya summons up the ocean waves and orders them to rise.
But suddenly the music stops. Something is missing. Oludumare nods at Chango. Chango claps his hand. Ochun and Yamaya smile with appreciation. Chango’s three wives frown.
They are running. We can hear their soft hurried footfall. They are all running toward El Yunque from the dusty village called Arroyo. They are thin and hungry. They are wild and dangerous. Some believe they harbor the souls of jibaro who died at work in the sugar-cane fields. Some believe that to look in their burning eyes is to look directly into the ever-open eyes of God. Some light eight candles when one of them passes. Some say prayers. Some leave them plates of hot food and bowls of cool water. Some even give them shelter in their very own homes.
But their footsteps, growing louder as they run toward El Yunque to answer Chango’s call, have the sound of freedom and the rhythm of rebellion and the tone of times long past. They live in the streets and sleep down in the weeds. They growl at passing strangers. They eat whatever there is to eat. They prowl all alone. They prowl in packs. Some say they can devour a small child in just the one minute its mother is distracted and turns her head. Some say the sound they make is the sound of evil and some even say it is the sound of death. Others say the sound they make is nothing but the sound of truth and vengeance. Some say their voice is the voice of the old, old gods.
They arrive at El Yunque, thousands of them, forming a tight circle on the damp hills around the ravine where the orchestra waits.
Oludumare lifts his arm, and raises his baton, and the music resumes. Strings are plucked and strummed. Gourds are rubbed and sticks are struck. Drums beat in time with aching hearts.
And the dogs of Arroyo sit up on their haunches, their heads tilted toward the moon, and they are howling warnings and yipping alarms, barking in rhythm, growling in a minor key, glaring with their burning red eyes as the music rises to its crescendo, as the drum beats turn frenetic, as Chango’s wives dance like their souls have been possessed, as Yumaya commands a storm.
The goddess Oya stirs the wind, which bends El Yunque’s trees sideways, as sheets of rain sweep through the forest, as the dogs of Arroyo howl loud enough to out-howl the wind – and all eyes watch the landing lights of a jet, which carries an American businessman and is descending at this moment to the runway at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport on the outskirts of San Juan.
This is what it says in the El Convento hotel’s brochure:
For one hundred years devout young Puerto Rican women who took vows of chastity and poverty and fidelity lived here at El Convento in small bare rooms, offering to Jesus their sacrifice of wealth, of freedom, of love. Then times changed, and fewer young women moved into El Convento. The nuns began to age and die, one by one, until only one nun remained of one hundred who had once lived there. This old nun moved to a small house in the mountains and the old convent, built during Spanish times, was purchased by Tito Cochino, who spent millions to renovate and transform it into the finest hotel in old San Juan.
El Convento was popular with visiting American businessmen because it was convenient to the Luis Munoz Marin Airport, and because their company expense accounts paid the two hundred and fifty dollars per night for a room (or four hundred dollars for an executive suite), and because El Convento let them see Puerto Rico through a prism. They slept comfortably in rooms with authentic ceiling fans and modern air-conditioners. They could avoid all contact with the islanders (except those who worked at El Convento, who were all polite and discreet and spoke English with only a trace of the Spanish accent). And they could sit in comfortable wicker chairs on a cool tiled terrace that was decorated tastefully with potted palm trees and vaguely tropical murals, where a recording of Spanish guitar music played softly in the background, and a caged parrot squawked every ten minutes as if on cue, and the pina coladas were expensive but potent, made with the island’s best rum.
This rum, of course, was El Moro, with its famous label with a pen-and-ink depiction of the famous San Juan fortress and its equally famous forty-dollar-a-bottle price tag. It was, of course, manufactured by Caribbean Enterprises Ltd., the company started by the grandfather of the man the American businessman hoped was about to become his client, the millionaire island businessman Tito Cochino.
The American, Harrison White, had never met the man. Letters had been exchanged and White had spoken with Cochino’s assistant over the telephone, but this would be White’s first face-to-face encounter with the Caribbean’s most famous entrepreneur.
The original Tito Cochino, the grandfather, was a hard-working farmer who raised sugar cane in the southern part of the island, in the fertile hills around Arroyo and Guayama. In a secret still he operated in one of the many caves to be found in that part of the island, Senor Cochino also manufactured bootleg rum, which soon acquired a wide and enthusiastic following among the wealthy landowners who could afford this expensive and illegal elixir, and among the small businessmen who aspired to greater things and would give Cochino free services in exchange for his rum – free medical care, free haircuts, free lunch, even once a free automobile, a used but still impressive Packard – and among the village police chiefs and town health inspectors who looked the other way because they knew that every year on the feast day of their patron saint they would find a quart bottle of rum in the bottom right-hand drawer of their desks or on the floor under the front seats of their automobiles.
This first Cochino expanded his operation during the years of Prohibition, operating stills constructed in locations scattered strategically throughout the island – in a church basement in Ponce to the south, behind the police station in Yuaco in in the western hills, in a back room of a botanica in Loquillo to the east, right inside an office in the town hall at Cayey in the central part of the island, and at a coco frios stand at the beach in Condado, near the capital city itself. From these places, as police and politicians looked the other way in exchange for cases of rum and envelopes stuffed with cash, this Cochino supplied rum to all of the good hotels in San Juan, and even to fine hotels and swanky clubs in Havana, Madrid, Paris, Miami and Manhattan.
The next Tito Cochino, the father, was the one who had true ambition, who planted the seeds of what later became Caribbean Enterprises, which grew and spread until it covered the island like a jungle, like a rain forest, its vines climbing every bare wall and clinging to every empty space and wrapping around every spare dollar left unattended on the island.
Bottles of rum and bags of money and friendly young women with flowers in their hair found their way to mayors and senators and governors and presidents, to police chiefs and their lieutenants, to generals and admirals, to bishops who wanted to build cathedrals and to coffee plantation owners who wanted to feel safe in their white mansions, to the captains of cruise ships berthed in San Juan Harbor, to drug lords from Mexico and the Dominican and mobsters from Miami and Chicago, to the proprietors of whorehouses, and even to the mean and muscled men who guarded the doorways of the galleria while vicious cockfights raged inside.
Soon this Tito Cochino, the father, ruled a great sprawling empire, centered in the great city itself. The cruise ship owners paid a fee in order to bring their wealthy passengers into the San Juan harbor, and this fee was paid indirectly to Caribbean Enterprises. The wealthy passengers made their way to the expensive hotels in San Juan and Condado and Santurce, taking taxi cabs from the docks, and these hotels and taxi cabs were owned by Caribbean Enterprises. When the wealthy visitors paid their room fees and ordered dinner and played blackjack and slots at the casinos in the expensive hotels, the winner was always Caribbean Enterprises, no matter the odds. When the tourists bought souvenirs of their visit to this tropical paradise, it was Caribbean Enterprises to which they unknowingly paid their dollars for T-shirts that read ‘’I Love Puerto Rico,’’ and for tiny cedar-scented boxes stamped ‘’San Juan, P.R., the Beautiful Island,’’ and for coqui lapel pins and coqui salt-and-pepper shakers and smiling little stuffed frogs which stuck out their pink tongues and squeaked out “Coqui_” when you squeezed their soft green bellies.
And when the visitors left their beautiful luxury hotels and left behind their thousands of dollars, as they boarded the cruise ships or took taxis back to the airport, inside each suitcase was a tiny complimentary bottle of the world-famous El Moro rum, courtesy of Caribbean Enterprises Ltd.
The current Tito Cochino was probably the most powerful Tito Cochino, and certainly the most mysterious. His power and influence reached far beyond the island, even beyond the Caribbean. With one word from the third Cochino, it was whispered, the worth of European and Asian currencies could rise or fall overnight. With a nod of his head, Cochino could topple the most entrenched and cruel Chilean junta. Just by lifting his eyebrow, just by raising a finger, maybe without even raising his finger, Cochino could order an assassination in Africa. Even the popes, it was said, even the American president, even the American tycoons who appoint the American president, all of these powerful people felt weak and frightened and servile when the name of Tito Cochino was uttered, or when a case of the most expensive blend of El Moro rum arrived as a gift of congratulations or condolence or good cheer.
And of course it was common knowledge, from the filthy gutters of La Perla to the polished penthouses and pristine kitchens of the San Juan hotels, that it was Cochino who allowed America to keep its army and navy bases on the island, Cochino who selected the island’s governor, Cochino who allowed the island’s statehood and independence movements to even exist, Cochino who permitted the vote held once in each generation to decide on the island’s political status, Cochino who made sure enough votes were cast for statehood and independence to placate those who were weak and poor and angry and to pacify those who were young and foolish and ambitious, but also made sure that were never enough votes to turn his beloved San Juan into another Havana.
Few people had ever actually seen Tito Cochino, although many claimed to have had the privilege. Some said he was very thin, slender as a cane stalk, and others said he was immensely fat with a head shaped like a coconut. By some accounts, he was a tall man, maybe even the tallest man on the island; by other accounts, Cochino was as short as a boy. Some said Cochino had a thin dark mustache, while others said he had a thick beard, and still others said Cochino was so well-groomed that he shaved three times a day, with a different razor each time.
Some said his eyes were black and others swore they had gazed directly into his sharp blue eyes, eyes as piercing as a parrot’s.
A big-breasted woman in Salinas was his wife, some said, while others spoke of his stable of dreamy young mistresses kept in every island town.
Some reported they had heard Cochino sing in a beautiful voice; others said he never even spoke, only signaled ominously with his raised brow and lifted finger.
Some said he carried a silver handgun; others said Cochino had such power that he didn’t need to carry a gun; some said this was true, but that he always carried with him his grandfather’s old machete, just to remember his roots.
Some said he lived in a fourteen-room penthouse at the San Juan Hilton, while some swore he lived in a luxurious suite at El Convento, and others said he lived deep within El Moro itself, in a secret underground bunker reached by a hidden and guarded tunnel designed to withstand any explosion. Others said the great and powerful Cochino lived nowhere, and that he moved from place to place for safety, for such a man has many enemies.
Many on the island believed Cochino sometimes traveled in disguise. He might be a weary Mexican tourist sitting on a bench near the fountain in the plaza; he might be a silent priest hearing whispered confessions from behind the dark screen; he might be a man sitting in a narrow doorway in Old San Juan and singing old songs while strumming the quatro; he might be one of the masked and vengeful devils prancing through the plaza during the carnival in Loiza; he might be the editor of El Nuevo Dia newspaper; he might even be an old jibaro walking slowly as he bore his load along a narrow mountain road.