Radames didn’t hunt gators at night, like the rest of them. He didn’t shine the light over the marshes and glades and look for their eyes to light up and then gun them down with a .30–30. He hunted them during the hottest part of the day, when the ancients sat sunning themselves in the muddy embankments. They were harder to find but easier to kill. They could still move real fast, but he’d rather it all happen in the when he could see. He didn’t have the money for a big spotlight. He had to be able to see the twitching of the marsh grass blades; had to be able to smell the humid, hot air blowing in from the Gulf. No. The light of day was better.
It was forty-three acres of marsh that bordered a posh, Cuban new money mansion outside of Miami. The marsh waters moved with the tides. The gators made their way into the marshes and occasionally took out one of Mr. Mercado’s greyhounds. The latest one took a breeder. Mr. Mercado was furious. He bred the dogs for racing. The grounds of his estate were rather oddly and garishly festooned with statues and tributes to these strange, skinny wretches that he bred to race and win. Mercado considered it a personal insult. “Make sure you kill him,” he said. “I’ll feed the meat to my dogs.”
“No,” Radames said. “I take the meat.”
“Well, I want his head.”
Mercado was the chairman of the FCAC—Free Cubans Against Castro—one of the largest anti-Castro groups in Florida. The money from donations and even government sponsorship flowed in. Mercado used it to invest in community real estate, which was then turned at a profit, which then funneled arms and support to Cuban anti-Castro groups on the island. There were late night runs from a secluded beach, with a cigar boat laden with guns, food, equipment, and the unspoken complicity of the U.S. Coast Guard. The boat brought back yay-yo. The yay-yo was then sent around the country for the big money. It was known in the community. It was accepted as a necessary evil.
Castro was weak and sick now. His days were numbered. They weren’t going to kill Castro; let cancer handle him. They were going to kill his brother and take control of the island back as soon as the beard’s cigar hit the dirt.
Mercado got big results, bigger results than anyone really expected, and with them came big houses and nice cars. No one asked many questions; Mercado served the community and the government to their very specific ends.
“I’ve always liked you, Radames. You are an honest man. You make a solid deal.”
“I always make same deal. Igualdad.”
“Yes, yes,” Mercado said. He looked out across the marshland. “I hate these caimanos, Radames. Something about the way they sit and wait, it bothers me. It’s… how do you say? Unsettling—these, these,” he struggled for the word in English, “dinosaurs!,” he said finally, triumphantly. “They are left over from an old, old world. But, my friend, this is the new world! There is no room for ghosts here.”
Mercado had hired Radames years ago to keep the alligator population in check. He hired him because he was an old-school Cuban who had survived the exodus from Cuba on a flotilla of doors and rubber rafts; Radames skin was still scarred from the sun poisoning of being on the open sea for four straight days and nearly starving.
It had been a rainy year, especially the past couple months, and the influx of fresh water had moved the gators out from the glades and nearer to the coast. The big ones could tolerate the brackish water that pushed in during the tides. The air was cool and coming in from the northeast as if there was a storm approaching. Radames backed his truck down Mr. Mercado’s lawn to an open waterway through the sawgrass. He unhooked the boat from the trailer and waded into the marsh. Slipping calmly into the muddy water, he slid the boat off the trailer after him. His waders and boots were thick, tough rubber that could protect against a moccasin bite. Still, you never knew what you could find when you slipped into the marsh water. A snapping turtle took off his small toe ten years ago, went right through the rubber and everything. Radames killed it and made him into soup.
His aluminum boat glided quietly along. He didn’t use the motor because the grass would foul the prop, so he pushed through the shallow water with long, wooden pole like those gondola boats in Italy that he had seen on TV. His treble hook rested on the floor of the boat with the nylon rope coils wrapped beneath it; his bang stick was at the ready. He carried his powerhead—his smokie—nearly everywhere; it was a single shot .44 magnum with a push button trigger. Basically sent a small nuclear explosion into whatever it touched. Big gators, big rounds. Hit it between the eyes and little further back on the spinal column, then watch it twitch. The hardest part was dragging them out of the water with the hook but Radames was strong; he was thin but every fiber in him was old muscle that could pull that gator toward him no matter how much it fought—pulled him straight to that .44 mag—pulled him right up to his death.
He found the fallodor sunning itself on a small patch of mud that bordered a grove of trees. He was big boy—twelve feet—a full six feet of him nothing but tail. There was only one way to know if this was the gator that ate Mr. Mercado’s dog: empty the guts, check the stomach for contents and see if there was anything worthwhile. Selling gator meat was illegal in Florida but it was still done, it was part of the tourist trade outside Miami where visitors rode on fan-boats to see what life was like for the underclass that lived on the glades. Radames practically lived off the stuff at this point, he was filled to the brim with gator; tasted like a chicken that had been raised underwater.
Radames beached his boat on a muddy patch downwind of the gator. He took his bang stick and treble hook and began to creep through the trees toward his target. He was an old assassin and this was an old target, an ancient enemy that would eat you as quickly as look at you. Out here it was kill or be killed, eat or be eaten and it wasn’t all that different in the city.
Radames crept through the trees and underbrush until he could see the hulking gator lying on the bank, its breath so imperceptible that it almost appeared dead. Radames stayed hidden. He took his treble hook and ran the nylon through his fingers. The gator moved its head toward his direction and hissed. The big ones didn’t get big by accident, they were smart and cautious. Radames launched the treble in the air and landed it just past the gator’s hind leg but as soon as the rope touched its back, the gator began to scramble for the water. Radames pulled the treble taut and the hook sunk into the gator’s meat at the base of its tail. The gator just moved faster, all 600lbs of him and the rope tore through Radames calloused, brown hands with a burning anger. Radames couldn’t stop the gator’s dive but he could secure him to the shore. Radames wrapped the slack rope around a tree several times and held the end. The gator reached the length of the rope and the tree shook with its weight as it pulled and thrashed, burying the hooks deep into its flesh.
Radames tied off the rope and then took his bang stick out onto the muddy bank. The gator thrashed in the water, too deep for Radames to hit him with the bang stick. He gripped the rope, felt his bones and muscles brace, and then began to pull the gator back toward shore. The beast roared and growled and hissed and pulled, but Radames had the advantage, the water making the 600lbs manageable, like pulling an enormous boat to dock with only your bare strength. He pulled until the gator was in only inches of water and was too heavy to pull further. It swung its great head back and forth, jaws gaping, teeth shining in the light. Radames approached from behind.
Radames dropped the tip of the smokie down onto the top of its head.
There was an explosion and the stick kicked up in his hands and the gator convulsed and sprayed blood and bone from the brain plate and then it was dead and the hunt was done. It lay prone, half submerged in the darkness of the muddy water and half glaring and glistening in the light of day.
Radames retrieved the boat and brought it next to the carcass. The gator was as long as the boat. Radames flipped the gator onto its back, rolling its massive, heavy head and then rolling the tail. Already the birds were in the skies watching and circling. Emptying the guts here would cut out about two hundred pounds from the weight. He slit the gator lengthwise from the jaw to the tail and the liver, stomach and intestine slid out onto the beach along with the smell of rotting flesh. Radames cut away all the organs from the muscle and then slit open the stomach and sifted through it like it was an oversized plastic shopping bag.
Some rotted fish. Some bird beaks. Dog collar with, what looked like the thin leg bone of one of those gawky greyhounds—bingo. Mercado would be pleased.
Then there was a glint of golden light in the putrid stomach sack, something that shone mixed in with the shreds of digested fish and bird and dog.
A gold ring on the ring finger of a man’s left hand; Radames reached in and pulled it out and held it up in the light. The hand had been brown, like his own skin, but much had turned black with rot. The ulna bone stood out white in the daylight, washed smooth and clean by the digestive acids. The ring was a wedding ring. It was engraved with two peacock feathers that, placed back to back, formed the eyes of the goddess Oshun.
Radames looked at the ring and he looked at the guts of the caimano heaped in the sand and the stream of blood that ran in rivulets to the water. Near to him, in the copse of trees just beyond his kill, were ceiba trees. Radames lowered his head to the earth. It was late afternoon now and in the clear sky he could see the ghostly form of the waning moon.
Death is upon us, he thought.
Daniela’s wedding dress had changed from its original sparkling white to a pale yellow; she had been wearing it for one week and the cigarette smoke in the apartment had crept into its cotton fabric. She sat slumped back in a chair, eyes heavy, bottle of liquor at the table beside her. A ceiling fan turned slowly but did not move the stifling air. Outside the plaster walls, down in the street, Little Havana moved in the night, creeping ever closer to the great sea; garrulous tourists intermingled with music and the smells of roadside meat smokers wafted up into the night, past the lamps perched on top of apartment buildings and toward the stars set in the deep, penetrating black.
Radames had found her. He had followed the rumor trail and talk of the missing, men with Santeria rings who had become ghosts, until he found Daniela, wife of Marcos San Miguel. She was young, a third his age. She was drunk. Her hair was clumped in strings that fell over her face, a dark and smoldering fire. Gathered in the corners of room, illuminated only by the street light that cut through the blinds were several men, arms crossed, cigars, mustaches and dead, brown eyes that looked upon Radames with suspicion.
She looked at him with a cosmic indifference.
“Que te aporta anciano aqui?” There was anger in her eyes.
“Oshun me trae aqui,” he said.
“You are a hunter?” she said.
“What do you hunt here?”
“Eh… Caimanes cazan caulquier caza.”
“And what did you hunt back in the homeland?”
“Ah,” she nodded. “But you are old now. You are not a soldier anymore but you know of Oshun.” She leaned forward, her blackened, tear-struck eyes focused dead on Radames. “They say that when our people were brought to Cuba from the motherland, Ochosi went with them—disappeared from the African jungles and came to Cuba. I suppose Ochosi came here with us, as well. So what do you come here for when I am in mourning?”
“Manos,” he said. He reached into his shirt pocket with his calloused fingers and took out the ring. He handed it to her.
She held it in her hand, head down, eyes closed in silent prayer or perhaps resignation. “I know it by its weight,” she said. “It is not gold. We could not afford gold. Miguel wanted gold for us but there would be none of that in Cuba. So we came here looking for gold; to this place where there are fortunes. But there is also much to be lost.”
She examined the ring one last time and then flipped it to one of the men in the corner. “Miguel esta muerto. Ternerlo al Palero.” The man examined the ring and hung his head. He walked out of the room and the others followed. Now Radames was alone with her. She sat back in her chair and looked at him through her angry eyes.
Even in her poor state, she was beautiful. The tears darkened her eyes, but they still penetrated the soul; she had not eaten or showered in days but still she was the most desirable creature Radames had seen in his long life.
“Why do you look at me like that?” she said.
“Lo siento, Señora.”
She looked away from him and sighed deep.
“When did you come here, old man,” she asked.
“Thirty five years ago,” he said.
She laughed slightly, her hand to her lips. “Before I was even born,” she said.
Radames hung his head, ashamed for having looked at her in such a way.
“Do not feel sorry for me,” she said. “You are strong. You came here and you have survived. This isn’t Cuba. There is no military or Castro. It is so free!” she said. “But so dangerous; more dangerous than Castro and Cuba. There are more bad men, more ways to become one. In Cuba there is Castro—one bad man—but here…” She held her arms out limply looking around the dank apartment, holding everything, the music, the smells of the street, the deep, dark sky, “There are more temptations here. It makes house-cleaning for dollars look like poor-man’s work. Do you know I scrub toilets every day? That is my job here. Miguel hated it. An honest man is poor over here, I think. You,” she said. “You are an honest man?”
“It’s the gold,” she said. “It’s the money. When you are poor, it is all you think about and you are ready to do anything to get it. And then when you have it, you realize that now, finally, when you can afford to be honest, it is impossible. Do you see what I am trying to say?”
“Miguel hated Castro. He hated working for Castro, he wanted to work for himself and for me and for a family. So we bought our way onto a boat with the promise that he would work when he got here running yay-yo out of the city, unload the shipments bring them out of the city and bring the money back. That was how we would pay our passage. But it was corrupt, you see? It was dirty. These men Miguel worked for, they hated Castro and they worked to rid Cuba of him, but they worked for money most of all. If they succeeded they would have taken Cuba for themselves and built an empire. Do you know these men?”
She sniffed slightly and pulled her black hair back behind her ears. “Miguel took some of their money. He took some of their drugs. He sold it. He snorted it. He got crazy. The last night I saw him, there was this look in his eyes like he could see home from right here in this apartment, like he was seeing into the past, but he wasn’t seeing me. He wasn’t seeing us. He wasn’t seeing this apartment. He was possessed. That was the last night I saw or heard from him until now, when you bring me his ring with the eyes of Oshun engraved in the fool’s gold. It is now that you come to me – a messenger.”
“I have a message that I would like returned,” she said.
Daniela stood from her chair and slipped her shoulder out from the stained white dress. She let the dress fall to the floor, sliding down her slender, glistening body to crumple at her feet.
She stood before Radames naked, a goddess, calling him to a rite of some unknown passage, a ritual of a mysterious practice. Right then and there, she was possessed of Oshun—she truly was the goddess of love, marriage and gold, and when she spoke it was not Daniela that spoke but rather Oshun and her voice was like the hiss of a thousand snakes.
She took Radames in her hands and held him close and whispered in his ear and then she dropped to her knees and clutched her breasts upward toward the heavens and she cried out for Chango—lover of Oshun—and her voice was filled with deep baritone pain. Her voice rose to the stars, children of the moon and sun.
The three men returned to the room and with them the Palero. The air rushed in from the open door way and began to stir the room. Radames knew this Palero. His powers had been passed down from his father in the old country. He brought with him, his Macuto. One of the men carried a wire mesh cage with a black rooster darting its eyes and beak in every direction, aware that it was in the presence of ghosts. Radames glanced out the back window to the grassy courtyard below. A ceiba tree stood alone in the courtyard, surrounded on all sides by the apartment complex, bathed in yellow lamp light. There, in the light, he could see two men digging a small hole at the base of the tree. He knew this spell.
Oshun had called for Chango and now he would be here. Her lover had come for retribution.
The Palero laid down his Macuto flat on the ground and spread the contents on the square of cloth: garlic, red pepper, ginger and cinnamon; feathers, sea water, a jar of live centipedes, ten human finger bones—still brown with dirt from burial—and a skull; candles, pepper and rum, and the bark of the ceiba tree; palm oil and lightening stones in a bowl that had been obviously stained with blood many times over. Yes, Radames knew this Palero—a robber of graves who summoned both Orishas and the evil Kiyumba spirit—a powerful man.
The Palero’s eyes scanned the room and fell on Radames.
“You found Miguel?”
The Palero nodded. He took a cigar from the Nganga and lit a match. He inhaled deeply puffed until the cigar was fully lit and glowing in the dark of the room. Daniela remained on her knees, naked, curled into a ball before the Nganga. The Palero then exhaled the smoke throughout the room; he inhaled and exhaled again, blowing it in all corners, over all the mouths and nostrils of all those in the room and Radames felt the Palero’s hot breath blow into him and he smelled the cigar smoke, tainted with some kind of herb that he did not know—a smell that was completely foreign to him and suddenly the room was alive and swirling in the smoke. The Palero, the size of a tree, his words floating in the mist, his eyes mirrors to the afterlife, glowing in the darkness. He began to chant, cursing the murderer; Daniela was rocking on her knees back and forth, faster and faster.
Daniela was now chanting the curses with the Palero. He kneeled down before the Macuto and mixed the garlic with pepper and sulfur and the dust from a graveyard. He churned the mixture with his hands in a bowl. He paced around the room and then took the black rooster from the cage. It flapped its wings and spread feathers in the air that floated and danced with the ghosts. He took a large knife that gleamed in the moonlight. He held the bird over the Macuto and the lightening stones and sliced its breast open. Blood rained down on the stones and onto the cloth and the Palero continued his chant and Daniela raised her voice to a shrill cry; her voice joined the Palero’s and reverberated in the room. Radames could feel himself being taken—a spirit infecting his body, possessing him. He watched Daniela smear the blood on her body and writhe with the seductive dance of Oshun.
The Palero poured the rum into the bird and the rooster, still alive, shrieked in a way that Radames had never heard an animal scream. The Palero then took the mixture of garlic and graveyard dust and packed the bleeding wound on the bird until the blood flow was stopped. He wrapped the black rooster in a black cloth and the six of them, together, walked out of the apartment and down to the courtyard where two men were waiting beside the ceiba tree with a shovel and a broom.
The whole walk down the Palero continued his chants. No one opened their doors to gaze upon the rite. They all knew better.
They buried the rooster alive beneath the roots of the tree and covered it up. The Palero took the broom and struck the bark of the tree three times.
They vibrated in Radames’ mind.
He blinked and found himself at his home, the caimano that he had killed and placed in his game freezer was spread out on the floor before him. It was only the husk, the guts and soul gone. Radames ran his hand over the skin.
The greyhounds were barking in their kennels. Mercado thought it just might be the thunder and lightning in the distance but there was a certain expression in their yelps and cries and especially their growls that made Mercado think otherwise. He had been sitting in his living room watching television, smoking a cigar and enjoying a fine cognac. The wall facing the back yard where the kennels were was entirely glass but it was dark outside, and the light of the house reflected in the windows, so he could not see the dogs or the marsh but only the occasional flashes of lightning like artillery shells exploding on the front of a distant war.
The yelps and growls continued. Mercado considered for a moment calling his security guard, who was stationed at the entrance gate to his estate, but decided against it; these were his prize dogs, an ordinary layman would not know the intricacies of their behavior. To the layman, the dogs merely being alive meant that all was well, but this was not always the case. Each dog was worth ten grand easily. There were ten of them in the kennel – award winning animals that raced with all their hearts, as if pleasing him were their sole reason for being.
Mercado placed the cigar in his mouth and put on his slippers. He walked outside into the night. The dogs were churning about, huddling together as if afraid. Perhaps it was the storm, he thought. He walked across the neatly manicured lawn that was sprinkled with condensation and ran his hand across the chain link kennel fence. The dogs eagerly licked at his fingers and whined. Some of the larger males were growling at the far corner, looking out at the marsh. Mercado walked to the edge of the kennel and touched their cold noses with his fingers. The dogs were eager, eyes darting back and forth in the darkness, perhaps an animal at the edge of the lawn.
Then there was a movement in the sawgrass and the sound of something large moving out of the marsh water, torrents of brackish water falling off the body. Mercado’s heart jumped for a moment. It was not a fast movement. In the dark he could barely make out the ancient lizard form that had pulled itself up from the marsh water and now sat on the trimmed lawn grass, probably stalking his dogs.
“Fucking caimanos!” Mercado glared at the old beast and it stayed still for a moment. It was a dark shadow on his lawn. It watched him and he could see it swell and depress, breathing in and out. He was angry that it had come to him; he was also afraid. He hated them because they scared him and they scared him because they could not be persuaded, trained, made to obey like the other good creatures of the Earth—dogs, cats, humans. No. They were too old for this world and Mercado didn’t want them here—old gods in a new land.
He began to turn away, to retrieve his guard with a rifle and put this thing out of its miserable existence. But when he turned his back, he heard it move again; that sound of reptile skin dragging across blades of grass. He turned his eyes back toward the caimano. He saw it stirring in the grass. It seemed to be rocking side to side. It was as if the caimano was dancing on its belly, its rocking growing faster and faster, moving with a sound that only the animals could hear. Mercado began to back away in horror and disgust; it was as if some demon possessed this thing and was moving its arms and legs and tail and making it dance in the darkness. The thunder bellowed out at sea and Mercado was suddenly struck with the realization – like a comet being pulled from deep space and finally colliding with the Earth—that this was something more than coincidence; this was something more than animal instinct. This was purposeful. He had heard of these kinds of moments before—usually attested by priests to be miracles—but if the miraculous can work good, it can also work evil.
Mercado suddenly realized this and then the caimano stood up and was dancing on two feet with legs like a man, swaying back and forth in the wind and stench that rolled off the everglade.
He turned and ran. His eyes honed in on the single target of his home where he would be safe. And then there was the piercing pain in his upper thigh, close to his groin, and he felt something sharp and solid plunge through his flesh and into the bone. He shrieked and fell to the ground. Already he could feel the wetness of the blood in his pants, warm as if he had just pissed himself, running hard from the femoral artery that ran straight from the heart. Mercado reached down and felt the steel of a giant hook lodged into his leg.
Then it pulled.
With more pain than he had ever known in his life, the hook began to drag him across the grass. Mercado screamed but the sound was lost on the marsh and evaporated in the thunder. Before him he could see the caimano-man in the darkness, pulling Mercado toward him. It was a monster or a demon, he thought. And Mercado began crying for forgiveness for any number of sins. He prayed to God and Mary but neither heard him because this was someone else’s servant.
Mercado was pulled across the grass, past his yipping and barking greyhounds—new world animals that could never survive in nature on their own—and toward the swamp. The feeling was gone from his leg. No more blood was reaching the nerves. But he was still afraid so he continued to cry and call out in the darkness. There was no use.
He felt his body be pulled over the edge of his lawn and slide into the mud of the marsh. The caimano-man stood over him—half reptile, half man. In his hand a long, black stick.
The sound of a .44 Magnum rolled over the sawgrass and out to the Atlantic.