House of Jaguar – Excerpt
FROM HER POSITION Dona could see the brushy opposite slope crowned by tree silhouettes against the lightening horizon, and the pale ribbon of road that curved round its foot with the open gully beside it then descended below her, swerving east towards the valley with the lights of the Army Base at its end.
The stones beneath her had grown warm from her body and she squirmed comfortably down among them. The rock on which her Galil rested was sharp and damp; the cold barrel stung her fingers. Thirty meters to the left was Lupo Taliscá’s hunched form and the faint glitter of his rifle. To the right, from where the trucks would come, she could see neither Margaríta in her cover of spindly trees nor Gordo beyond, guarding the flank.
It’s just me, she realized, and Lupo, whom I don’t know, the two of us alone in this universe without time, without the sun which will never rise and the convoy that will never come and we will never shoot and that’s what it feels like to be dead.
If it all goes well there’ll be no bad wounds – she could hope for that. But all wouldn’t go well and she mustn’t even say it. If all went badly she had bandages and compresses for the easy bullet wounds. And if they could get the wounded out she could operate later. But a lung wound like García’s, or Clemente’s, and she’d lose them.
With a machine gun in the trucks there’d be some big wounds, shearings and major tissue and bone loss and if the choppers came there’d be rockets and much worse, and if there were A37s she had nothing for the phosphorous burns.
A black jay fluttered down and pecked at the road’s shoulder, ran a few steps, pecked again. She thought of when she was a girl and these sanatés gathered at dusk in the church tower outside her bedroom window; leaning out of that window she had picked figs from the ancient tree with its roots deep in the graveyard below – it had always pleased her, this, the bodies of her ancestors feeding hers.
A red spot seared through the green dark east, widened, writhed up among the nest of branches into a white-orange ball whose heat came racing down the slope and slapped her face. Its light slipped down past the others’ camouflaged positions, struck the opposite slope, and dropped onto the road where the trucks would come, then down into the gully, slid east past the rocks and where Martín and El Caballo hid with the M60, then poured down into the valley towards the Army Base, catching a line of yellow-leaved willows along an irrigation ditch, a pasture with two brown and white cows.
Once more she measured the distance below from the curve to where the first truck would stop: space for five trucks if they bunched up, or two if they didn’t. Thirty-seven meters, Martín had said, from her position to where the first truck would be caught in the trench the other compañeros had dug last night; from that trench it was a hundred and ten meters to the curve round which the trucks would come.
Behind her it was a hundred and forty-five meters to the crest of the slope where the real trees began – until then there were only thin trunks, thin chalky soil with sparse grass to her knees. Crawl like a snake through the grass, Martín had said, if you have to.
She closed her eyes and tried to remember the position and curve of the road and the slope and every other detail then opened her eyes to check, closed them again and again until the picture inside her head and that before her eyes was the same. Again she closed her eyes and dismounted the clip of the Galil and remounted it and did it again, reached out to memorize the exact location of the second clip at her elbow.
Light raced east across the valley towards the Base, the sun heating her face as if she were leaning down to a blazing hearth, and as she turned not wanting to be blinded there was a far whammer-whammer-whammer of a chopper nearing fast then suddenly rounding the hill. It banked away and El Caballo’s M60 spat hard and the chopper’s tail rotor flew off; the chopper swung round and round like a stone on a string, the pilot trying to bring it down fast but it dropped sideways into the jungle leaving a sudden silence then the boom of its crash and orange flames billowing up oily smoke and a flare of magnesium and chatter of machine gun rounds exploding in the heat.
“Mierda!” she screamed. “Mierda! mierda! mierda!” The Base gleamed silently in the new sun, columns of white smoke from cooking fires rising like the pillars of the sky. Out of the gully rose the smell of burning foliage, flesh, and jet fuel.
Voices came down the line; Lupo stood and yelled, “Stay put!” and she called it on to Margaríta. Martín came running along the line. “The outpost will come for the chopper – we ambush them – Miguel and his people attack the Base – reverse of the plan!”
“We must leave! This isn’t the plan!”
“Fuck the plan! This is better!”
“Choppers never come alone!”
Sweat fell from his face onto her hand. “They come, we retreat.”
“You mean run!”
“Sí – run!” He glanced at his watch, hers. “It’s now five fifty-seven. You still have to be out of here at six twenty-nine.”
“The choppers’ll be here before then,” she said, but he was gone to Margaríta then up to Gordo on the flank before running back past her. From the outpost came the rumble and gear whine of trucks.
Clouds had thickened to the south; she kept hearing choppers in their thunder. But the choppers did not come; the sun inched higher; trucks came from the Base and stopped at the valley edge out of range, small and darkly backlit by the sun. Soldiers ran from them into the trees and up the slope towards the burning chopper.
The M60 opened up; a soldier rolled like a corn straw doll downhill, more running up the gully, and she shot twice as they crossed the road; one fell then the other but he scrambled for cover. A bullet flicked the bush beside her face. Another soldier fell in a burst from the M60.
Four helicopters in V formation dropped over the western slope, Cobra gunships with ugly jutting stingers; the M60 fired and one banked to spray it; Dona squeezed single shots at the side gunner and the Cobra turned on her, bullets shattering stones and spouting earth and she rolled up deaf and half-blind to fire back but her magazine was empty, the spare lost in rubble.
Her spine aching with terror as the chopper came at her, her legs begging to run, her fingers fumbled through the rocks for the magazine but it wouldn’t mount and she saw it was backwards but now it jammed. A rocket battered her into the ground shrieking with fear and rage, the Cobra’s machine guns pummeling brush and stone, the air filled with flying rocks and dirt and branches and a great white heat sucked her in then slammed her down in raging white silence.
There were cries like seagulls and the patter of dirt and stone coming back to earth; she realized it was herself crying, felt round but could not find her rifle, scrambled up and sprinted for Margaríta’s trees. The universe was panting, a great roar rasping in and out and she looked down to see if her chest had been torn open, if the noise was from there, but she was not bloody.
Margaríta lay on her back, no head, just red roots sticking out of her neck; someone was saying “Jesús Jesús Jesús” inside Dona’s brain. She grabbed Margaríta’s gun and ran through splintered trees along the slope as the chopper came back for her, bullets shaking the earth as she ran; she fell on her back to fire but it flitted past and she rolled up and dashed to Lupo dead beside a rocket’s red crater and dived into the crater as the rotors came back, bullets shivering and spattering the singed, reeking earth, and she jerked and lay out straight.
Through her half-closed eye and the black half-veil of her hair she saw the door gunner in his flak uniform and helmet like an avenging insect as he tried to steady the hail of bullets on her and the chopper slid past and dived downhill towards El Caballo and Martín.
A black rod dropped from the chopper and flared, dashed against the rocks, a sudden white shock of heat exploded the trees, great boulders soaring like foam through gyrating phosphorous clouds. She clung to the crater, the blaze burning her back, kept holding her breath against the acrid smoke, fumbled in the dirt for the rifle, waited till she could open her eyes then gasped a small breath that stuck to her throat like burning oil.
She waited longer not breathing, waited for the boiling white clouds to reveal the chopper hanging steadily overhead like a snake over its poisoned prey. Still not breathing she aimed at the narrow black slot over the chopper’s wiring channel and fired single shots that the chopper did not seem to feel till suddenly it lunged at her and she gripped the fractured earth waiting to die.
El Caballo’s M60 rang out, metal hailing the chopper and it dropped away as two more choppers dived at El Caballo firing rockets side by side. The earth yanked itself from her and dropped her down ten feet away and she scrambled for the gun and fired at the new ones till the gun was empty and she ran past someone’s shredded body to El Caballo half-buried; when she knelt to him she saw it was just his head and torso, his pelvis and legs had been blown elsewhere, the M60 with them.
Martín had crawled beneath a toppled trunk, his chest and face red, his beard gone – no, not gone, for his chin had been blown away so that the roots of his upper teeth grinned out at her. Not knowing his chest was gone he tried to speak, his larynx weirdly working, bared ribs twitching.
A bullet tugged her sleeve; soldiers were coming uphill, their bullets snapping branches and sucking at the charred air; she reached beneath Martín’s waist to the back of his ammo belt and yanked at the spare clip, the belt and part of his uniform and body coming with it. She knocked off the other clip and mounted this one.
A chopper was returning. She forced herself to check the clip then fired, a bullet hitting in front of a soldier but he fell anyway, perhaps from the ricochet, their bullets smashing bark and splinters from the fallen tree.
Martín pointed to her rifle then himself. She kissed his forehead and his eyes, his bloody upper lip. He pointed at the gun then his heart. She shot him; he convulsed, legs quivering. She ducked behind him and fired into the back of his skull, emptied the rifle at the soldiers, and ran screaming into the jungle.