The Damaged Ecology
Jhon Orteguaza tugged on the conical white knit cap as soon as he parked the Range Rover. He'd found the cap amongst his mother's meager belongings after she'd died of TB a month earlier in Hospital San Juan de Dios in Baranquilla, Colombia.
‘What's that ugly old thing?' Amari Santander said, chuckling.
That was a big mistake. Orteguaza stared so hard and so long at the dark-haired beauty in the car that she started to get truly frightened. Red bloomed on one cheek as if he'd struck her. Perhaps he had.
‘Do you believe sex and violence are linked?' he demanded.
‘Stay here now. When I come back, I will either coge you or kill you. You can choose.'
He stepped out into the dank alley. Orteguaza figured that the traditional cap of an Arhuaca holy man would get a rise out of the santero whose advertisement he'd also found in his mother's single cardboard carton of possessions - the sad gleaning of a lifetime.
Inside the shrine, which was really just a garage off the alley, the grizzled little man squatted in front of a bonfire on the cement floor. Orteguaza sat down cross-legged facing him across the fire. When the santero looked up, he shouted and swept the cap off Orteguaza's head like a bad idea.
A night of grave mistakes. Oh, little man.
‘Them mountain mamos is stupid fuckers,' the priest said in an ugly Spanish that swallowed the middle of every word - so very Caribbean. Mamos just meant priests but it meant a lot more if you were Arhuaca. ‘You an Indio, son?'
‘You knew my mother, pendejo. She was Drunvala, a full-blood Arhuaca,' he said. He had scheduled a session because he half-believed in the powers, just as he was half Indio, but he wondered if he was going to let this little faker live.
Drunvala Orteguaza's people had been one of the three famous tribes holding fast to the old soul in the inaccessible Santa Marta Mountains of coastal north Colombia. They had expelled the Capuchin missionaries plus the Spanish teachers and others sent by the state. In 1990, they had sent their one fluent Spanish-speaker down from the high mountains to demand that a BBC crew at work nearby follow him back up to document their mamos' warning to the entire world about the ecology that had become so fatally damaged that their regular ministrations might no longer be able to repair it. Remarkably, the BBC crew had agreed, and they climbed the mountain to make The Elder Brothers' Warning, a ninety-minute documentary.
‘Them mountain beliefs is shit. Forget the sierras. Your mother's true Orisha was Oshun, the goddess of love and passion.'
Orteguaza was mildly embarrassed that his sense of his own Indio people existed in his mind only back in the mists, images built up from the crudest daily journalism in gutter papers that called them primitivos plus a little of the BBC film that he had seen, yet the tribe lived only seventy kilometers away. His mother had migrated down to Baranquilla on the lowland coast two years before he was conceived, where she'd worked as a domestic for rich supermarket owners and car dealers. She had gradually taken up many of the local servant beliefs of Caribbean Santeria, dancing herself to exhaustion at night in a stewed-together worship of African gods, their equivalents in syncretist Catholic saints and fading memories of her own Arhuaca yearnings toward mother-earth.
Jhon had been her only child, an accident of religious intoxication from dancing too near a tall, handsome Colombian wrestler. The boy grew up headstrong in Baranquilla and was repeatedly thrown out of the city schools. Eventually he'd grown himself up on the port-town streets, and like so many of the urban self-taught, this handsome and short-tempered half-Indio had been left to believe everything and nothing.
He'd eventually fought his way to jefe of a cocaine distribution gang that was now richer than most Swiss banks and used low-flying airplanes, home-made submarines, and go-fast cigarette boats, plus a hundred other smuggling ruses to transport the priceless powder into North America. Inevitably, he came to owe allegiance to the powerful Medellin cartel.
Orteguaza ruled the cuates and thugs of his klika with a rough hand, and they followed their Gran Jhon and his occasional religious eruptions without question.
The santero surreptitiously tossed powder into the small bonfire on the garage floor, and it erupted into orange flame.
‘You have done something wrong to someone,' the santero stated, in what suggested an oracular voice.
‘Chingada,' Orteguaza said dismissively. ‘Doing someone wrong is universal. Tell me something real.'
‘Is a minefield outside, yes. Give me my coca now.'
That had been the price of the consultation. ‘The talk isn't over yet, padrito. I need to know about my next biznis.' He used the English word, or something near it. ‘Señor Stone has been straight with me up to now, maybe. But I have a strong inner feeling of betrayal. Give me some of that magnesium powder or whatever it is you use to dupe the fools.'
The santero tried to stare him down to reestablish his authority. Orteguaza grabbed the man's wrist hard and wrenched his hand down into the bonfire.
‘Cabalero, po' ‘avor! Aiiiii!'
He let go and the santero's other hand went into a small leather pouch and offered a palmful of silver powder.
Orteguaza took it and tossed it all into the flames, which blazed up like a brushfire sweeping through something very dry. He watched the shape of the flames with intense concentration and saw something unpleasant there.
‘And what does that sign say to you, little man?' Orteguaza demanded.
‘My orishas do not always see the future as unmistakably as the stupid star-chart in El Heraldo,' he said with dignity. He was rubbing his singed fingers hard against his thigh.
‘Then what good are you?' Jhon Orteguaza declared. He pressed his 9mm Glock against the forehead of the santero and pulled the trigger. The man shrieked like a bird as he fell over backwards.
‘You see now whose gods are strongest, pendejo? What stupidness. Never insult a man's mother.'
He collected his precious mamo's hat and the tiny leather bag of magic powder and looked back at the flickering fire. Maybe this love-and-sex goddess Oshun could still tell him what to do about the troublesome woman in the car outside, and, most important, about Señor Stone in El Norte.