Verb: to long or hope for, to express a wish for, to invite, to feel the loss of.
There is a subtle difference when one describes a woman as beautiful, hot, or cute. “Hot,” to my mind, implies a purely physical or carnal appeal. “Cute” suggests a form of sweetness, if not innocence of personality in addition to a material attraction. “Beautiful” is the combination of these, and considerably rare in the early 21st century. It is with this understanding that I describe Esperanza Cabrillo as quite possibly the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. While I am in complete agreement that men should not place women on the “pedestal,” I fear that I come dangerously close to doing so when confronted by a rare, true beauty.
I, a largely Americanized French-Canadian, had been living in Latin America for several years when I first became acquainted with this brown-haired criolla. Quebec has a curious diaspora, a combination of economic migrants, political dissenters, and deracinated “globals.” We can dissimulate within Anglophone cultures with considerable ease, as well as learn other Romance languages with less difficulty than our Saxon cousins.
The society from which we come is a fundamentally schizophrenic one. We rush to eliminate anything deemed Catholic or “Old World” but are desperate to find things which differentiate ourselves from the “other” Canadians. We are antagonistic toward the Anglos over language, and yet refuse to take pride in anything European. We have a national egotism that borders on real arrogance yet reject ethnic identity in favor of a vaguely defined civic nationalism based solely on the French language. The Quebecois will accept a Lebanese, Algerian, or Congolese, yet shun a white Canadian from Ottawa. Rather than a people with a language, Quebec has become a language with a people. If this paragraph confuses you, it means you have read it correctly.
Feeling very tired of it all, I set out first on a semester abroad program and later to teach English, an irony that was by no means lost to me. Costa Rica had been my first destination, a safe target for first-time gringos. Within six months, I felt comfortable speaking Spanish in most situations and had even managed to save a bit of money. The relaxed and warm Latin culture appealed to me, though it took some time for me to come out of my metaphorical shell. I suspect that most Northerners retain an element of Catholic guilt or Puritan oppression in their personality, feeling a subconscious sense of shame when enjoying alcohol, sex, or other vices. The extremes to which youth go to “liberate” themselves with debauchery is little doubt an unhealthy form of compensation for this mentality. Such concerns seemed not to exist south-of-the-border however. It made such an impression on me that I announced an indefinite hiatus to my university and took up a position teaching full time in San Jose.
I liked the place but felt it was time to move on after about a year. In retrospect, part of me regrets this decision, but I found the country to be too ridden with expats for comfort. No, not for comfort, for…whatever it was I was seeking at the time. My next destination surprised even me: Santiago de Chile. This country is unique in South America for having an overtly conservative (in the American sense of the term, connotating limited state power, free enterprise, and private property rights) government. State efforts to attract foreign entrepreneurs have even been enacted, which worked to my favor. For tax reasons, I had previously incorporated myself as an LLC (or the equivalent) and started the Easy Ingles language school, shortly thereafter relocating to the Southern Hemisphere.
Esperanza and I met on chance. Over the course of my first year, I had become a regular at a certain coffee shop/bookstore in the old section of Santiago, a place which would probably prefer if I did not mention it. The place appealed to an odd combination of artists, entrepreneurs, and classicists, leading to many interesting conversations which ran late into the night. Fewer were those of us who spent time in the basement, wherein the more…unusual books could be found. I must be careful not to misrepresent the scene. This was very much a regular part of the bookstore, visited by everyday customers. It was by no means closed off or restricted, though mothers and young children seem to instinctively know to avoid it. Many eccentric personalities have passed through here over the years, the location serving as a site of pilgrimage for (self-stylized) mystics, occultists, and New Agers (God how I hate that term) from throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
And, occasionally, from further afield.
On those occasions when I preferred to concentrate on a particular project rather than engage others in conversation, I would work at an old wooden table in one corner of the basement. I was hardly alone in my appreciation for the place’s colonial feel and could easily imagine a wise old sea captain looking over his papers in just such a setting. I had been at it for perhaps half an hour, working on a horror story/Dan Brown-esque mystery set in the Age of Exploration, when we ran into each other. Literally.
She had stumbled down the stairs, having been trying to read while walking, and fell directly on my shoulder. With one motion, I managed to break both her fall and the ice. After cursing in a language I didn’t recognize under her breath, she quickly switched to Spanish and apologized profusely. Hers was a kind of sincerity which globo-Anglo culture often lacks and it never even occurred to me to be upset. The details of the following conversation would probably strike the reader as cliché, though I hope followers of certain blogs may notice a few “game recognized” moments, but I doubt it was nearly as smooth as my memory likes to remember. Before long, we had been discussing her teaching job at a local school, the novel she was planning to write about Portuguese explorers, and how much we both admired this coffee shop. Lest one think this is a cliché story with a happy ending, I assure you it is about to get far more twisted.
You can imagine the state my mind was in and therefore will likely not be surprised that I agreed to meet her the following night. That we were to meet in the cemetery of an old colonial mission did not seem odd to me in light of our shared interest in all things “weird history,” but outside observers would most certainly have raised an eyebrow. I wasn’t even deterred when I arrived a few minutes late and saw that the entire place was dark. Perhaps it was just part of the aesthetic. While I would never even consider engaging in animal acts on sanctified ground, I do confess that I was considerably excited by the developments.
It is a classic horror-movie mistake to split up from your group and venture out alone. Had I been with anyone else, I would’ve little doubt been cognizant of this, but again, most of my thinking was being done with an organ other than my brain. I jumped first the perimeter fence, then the old stone wall surrounding the church yard and began to shout-whisper for Esperanza. “¿Estás ahí?” No answer…always a good sign.
That I heard a faint sound of laughter from the far end of the courtyard should have been an obvious sign of trouble in retrospect. But, once again, I thought it was part of our weird dance. I set out in that direction but still had the wherewithal to keep a low profile. The survival part of the human brain can override the other parts when the situation truly calls for it. My childhood spent in less-than-ideal circumstances left me with an ingrained sense of danger (as well as more scars than I’d care to admit). Though not consciously aware of it, my desire for self-preservation had kicked in. That, and not wanting to get caught trespassing by city authorities.
The cross I wear around my neck had begun to feel hot as I approached the sound. This was sufficient to finally force me to come to my senses, for in my experience superstition is often a substitute word for instinct. It was by a fraction of an inch that I missed the first shot, for a dart had flown past my face to hit the wall behind me. Time seemed to slow down, with several things happening at once. A thin, pale, almost-reptilian hominid creature called after me in the voice of Esperanza, taunting me. Another dart passed as a second of these creatures reloaded a blow-gun. I would later learn that this was in the style of those used by Amazonian tribes, but in that moment, I was simply concerned with finding cover.
I had the pocket knife I always carry on me but was otherwise weaponless, especially at this range of perhaps fifteen feet. Managing to get behind a tombstone, I took a few seconds to catch my breath and listen for signs of movement. The taunting continued, but now the voice had become distorted, going back and forth between a horrible screech and the voice of the criolla. I knew nothing of the creatures I was confronted with but reasoned that (given their choice of hunting ground) they might be light-sensitive. I took my cigarette lighter from my pocket, used it to ignite the novel draft I was working on (it was shit anyway), and tossed it above the tombstone.
(Yes, folks, I really did carry my book drafts with me wherever I went; that is the level of my nerdiness.)
Using the light as a distraction, I made a run for the church door. I had just about made it when I felt a pain in my hip and saw that I had been hit. I continued to stumble forward even as I fell, managing a few last steps before it all became dark.
I do not know how much time had passed when I finally came to. I appeared to be in a dark, dank room lit by a few candles. The terrible odor began to rouse me back to consciousness and I realized that I was actually in what appeared to be a natural cave, though one which had clearly been inhabited for some time.
In order to be a “proper” Cathedral, Catholic tradition dictates that the relics of at least one saint must be present. These are most commonly kept either inside the altar or in the crypt beneath the structure, should such a crypt be present. Looking around slowly, I began to intuit that I was in such a crypt, for the iconography and carvings on the walls were clearly of Christian design. Santiago has had several Cathedrals built over the course of its history, with the earlier ones being destroyed by a series of earthquakes. The current structure, La Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago, was only finished in the year 1800. It had been assumed that the crypts of the earlier constructions had collapsed during the quakes, but this was apparently erroneous.
My hands were bound with rope, though not tightly. I could tell that I had full circulation and even a little wiggle room. This told me either that my captors were not particularly experienced in doing such things or that they wanted me to get loose, that this was a challenge of sorts. I do not know which possibility disturbed me more. Deciding that it would be better to die on my feet that to just sit and wait for things to happen, I began to wriggle and twist my wrists. After only a few minutes, I was free, suggesting further to my mind that they wanted me to try to escape. F**k it, if they wanted a game, I’d give them a game.
I began down the narrow corridor after untying my feet and suddenly felt terribly alone. The familiar sensation of feeling eyes upon you was totally absent. It is strange how I did not know which feeling was worse; being hunted or being abandoned in the pitch black. Yet I carried on and found that my eyes were gradually adapting to the environment and, even more strangely, that the place somehow seemed familiar to me. The natural cave wall increasingly took on the appearance of artificial construction and eventually I found myself in a clearly man-made labyrinth.
After some time—I haven’t the slightest clue as to how long it was—the tunnel opened up into a huge aperture. Across this threshold was a grand hall not unlike the main body of the cathedral above, though pretenses to the Christian religion were altogether absent. Instead, I saw, to my horror, the dreaded Aklo letters which had been described in only the wickedest of forbidden books, safely kept away from the prying eyes of the public.
There were still no signs of any other presence, so I resolved to continue on. Searching the full extent of the chamber, I finally found a spiral staircase leading upward toward an opening. It did not appear to be an external exit, yet I figured it would at least put some more distance between me and the ghouls. I went up…up…up…until I finally reached a dark antechamber perhaps 500 feet above. Though the lighting was still dim, I could see faint outlines of the room and followed one of the walls until…I fell through a hole in the ground.
I fell, out. I landed not on the streets of Santiago from under the Cathedral, but in the middle of the Andes mountains in the middle of nowhere. And then, all became white…
I woke up in the churchyard with Esperanza looking over me. She says that I slipped upon jumping the wall and that I had hit the ground pretty hard. She took me to the hospital where I again went unconscious for almost 48 hours before coming to (so far) for good. Looking into her eyes, I see nothing to suggest the horrors of my dreams, if dreams they were. The doctors tell me that I had been in a miniature coma and that images from one’s subconscious often filter to the surface under such conditions. I have little choice but to accept these things at face value, and I hope indeed that they are true, yet…I can no longer bring myself to want anything with sincerity. I have learned to go through the motions of life but no longer know what it means to live without a malaise of lethargy. Esperanza’s “shamanistic” friends tell me that the tunnels I was in were in fact my own brain, that I was navigating the veins and synapses of my cranium, but I cannot be so certain. Nevertheless, I know that I lost, or gained (?), something during this experience.
The greatest cure for nihilism is to have something other than yourself to live for. I hope that, once our first child is born, that I will once again know human compassion, love, joy…but until then, I will live in the condition that my injury has left me in. No quiero nada, pero todavía espero amar.
Daniel Bretton is a wayward son of New England. A simple, philosophically-inclined man, he wanders the world in search of wisdom, both worldly and Godly. Like Herodotus, he reports what he sees and leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions.