Votamba's Son, page 1
By Jon Hartling
Copyright 2011 Jon Hartling
You want to know why that land isn’t cleared yet? It’s because the stupid ojetes we had working the job ran away and won’t come back -- and even being paid two hundred pesos a day! And now that they’ve been talking about what happened, you can bet there’s no way any of the locals are going to work for us at any price. We’ll have to bring in labor from a different state, where they have different superstitions. Because, you know, you’re not going to find one of those fools that isn’t superstitious somehow. But we can go north, maybe to Chihuahua or Durango, and find some men who worry about desert demons instead of tree demons.
What really happened? I can’t tell you; I wasn’t there. All I can tell you is the story that they told me. What’s for sure is that the foreman we had out there -- you know, Jorge? -- he’s gone, and there’s no trace of him. The loggers all say he’s dead or worse than dead; and that must be true or he would’ve come out of the jungle by now. Jorge was a hard man, muy fuerte, didn’t take shit from anyone. It’s not so easy to replace someone like him.
You don’t mind if I take a little tequila, do you? Good. I tell stories better with tequila.
Anyway, this is what they say. Last week the loggers had worked their way about halfway up the slope and were making good progress, doing just fine. Then they came to this one big tree, and there was a man leaning up against it. He was one of the Tojolabals by the look of him, short and thin and really old, wearing the traditional costume. The loggers say he looked like he’d been standing there forever, like he’d grown up with the tree. Right away, too, a lot of them say they could tell he had dark power about him, magia negra they said, like he was a shaman or medicine man they didn’t want to fuck with.
Of course, all Jorge was seeing was a protestor: some guy who didn’t agree with the rest of his tribe that they’d be better off if we cut down a few trees and brought in a bit of civilization. You know, like it would kill them to have so much as a goddamn paved road. But the guy was old, alone, unarmed. So Jorge went up to him -- being as polite as Jorge could be, you see -- and asked him what the hell he was doing.
The old man, he said some things Jorge couldn’t understand. So they called up the translator. And then I guess they went back and forth for a while. Jorge started shouting. The translator threw up his hands and walked away, like the old man wasn’t speaking Tojolabal either -- they were getting nowhere. So Jorge, finally he was like, “Whatever, let’s just move this guy out of the way.” But then, all of a sudden, the old man spoke up loud and clear in perfect Spanish. A lot of the loggers heard what he said, too.
He told them, “You are in danger here. This tree is sacred to Votamba, and one of Votamba’s sons lives in it. Keep your saws far away, or a terrible fate will befall you.”
Who’s Votamba? I don’t know; maybe some kind of demon. See, the thing is that all the locals down there know about Votamba -- you can tell they know, because you say “Votamba” and they make the sign of the cross and beg you not to say it again -- but it’s hell trying to get anything out of them. After a lot of prodding, all I know is that they call Votamba the Dark Man of the Dawn; they say his children are ogres twenty meters tall; and they fear the east wind because it might bring his esporas -- you know, his spores? Like he’s some kind of giant mushroom? But that’s it.
Just a moment -- don’t mind me -- this is good tequila.
Well, I don’t care if you got it from a gas station for fifty pesos. Doesn’t have to be expensive to be good.
So anyway, when the old man mentioned Votamba, a lot of the loggers backed off. You know, turned miedica, like they wanted no part of that. And Jorge, he was like, what the fuck? He yelled at the old man, “Look, I don’t give a shit about your fairy tales. We’re going through here, and this tree is coming down.”
The old man said nothing, just stood there. So Jorge called a couple of his guys up, the ones who weren’t acting like pussies, and told them to remove the old man. They went up and took him by the arms and pulled him away from the tree. I guess he let them take him without any fuss -- he was just skin and bones anyway, not like he could have fought them. But he was looking back at Jorge with a terrible look… you know, kind of like a hungry coyote.
So Jorge said, “Okay, let’s cut this tree down already and keep moving.” But no one wanted to be the one to do it. Jorge got pissed then. He started calling his workers sons of putas, telling them he’d get them all fired if they didn’t grow some cojones. But in the end he went and got a chainsaw himself, and he cut that tree down.
Now this is one thing they all say: they all say the tree screamed. No, I’m not fucking kidding. They say it moaned first, like a man sick with fever, when the saw first bit the bark. But when Jorge cut deeper, that tree started really screaming, screaming even louder than the chainsaw. Jorge, he just kept going like he didn’t notice; but the workers say they don’t know how he couldn’t notice, because they were afraid of going deaf. The tree’s screaming -- they say that it shook the sky. That it sounded like something out of hell. One of them told me it was maybe like a bunch of angry hornets, if they were buzzing around in the mouth of a shrieking cat.
What? What are you talking about? No, I’m not shaking. Why the fuck would I be shaking? I’m drinking tequila, not coffee. But I will have another shot here…
Oh, don’t look at me like that, like you’re mi madre. I’m not some lightweight, not going to drink myself under your hardwood desk. You want to hear the rest of the story or not?
Okay. So finally the tree fell, and the screaming stopped, and it was quiet. And the loggers were kind of, you know, holding their breath to see what would happen. But it was just quiet. Jorge turned back to them, and he said, “Okay, that’s that; now get the fuck back to work.” But then there was some shouting and confusion, because the old man had disappeared. You know, like into thin air?
I don’t know. Maybe what really happened was that all the idiots were distracted by the goddamn screaming tree and the old guy just slipped away into the jungle. But that would mean that the tree was actually screaming. So you want to make sense out of this, you’re kind of between a roca and a hard place, see? I’m just telling you what I was told.
Anyway, the workers went a little farther up the slope, cut a few more trees. But the sky was getting wicked. A storm was coming in from the east. This part is for sure true, because the weather radar in Mexico City confirmed it: big storm out of nowhere. So they pulled out and made their way back down to the camp.
The storm came, and it kind of settled over them for a while before moving on. Lots of wind, thunder and lightning, but hardly any rain. A couple guys who went out in it said the air was gritty, like the wind was blowing a lot of dust and dirt around. Weird weather for a rain forest, right? And the loggers were all like, “Oh, we’re in deep caca now, this is the breath of Votamba, he’s going to get us.” I’m betting Jorge, you know… I think at that point, he was wishing he was a capitan in the old Red Army, so he could shoot one of those fucking cowards and get the rest to fall back in line. But he wasn’t scared of nothing himself. Like I said: hard man to replace.
Okay, fine, so my hand is shaking. Maybe I’m sick, eh? Maybe I’ve got the goddamn flu. So maybe I just go home when I’m done talking to you and sleep for a week. Fuck, whatever. My throat is dry.
Can I finish here? Gracias. So by the time the storm was done it was getting dark, and they couldn’t go out again ‘til the next day. Fine. Next morning came, Jorge was at them right away to move their asses, to get back up the slope and make up for lost time. There was a thick fog, though, so they’d have to be careful.
Yeah. Fucking naked. You want to know how big they said his dick was?
No, I’m joking. They didn’t tell me about his goddamn dick. We hire cowards, not maricones. Fuck, look at me. Why am I shaking so bad? More tequila, that’s what I need -- just a little more.
Right. Okay then. So as soon as they saw the old man again, most of the loggers just about pissed themselves. Just froze in their tracks. And