The old man had sent the new driver with Doña Matilde in the Volvo to her district of Toó, in the Western Highlands, for a traditional festival. The Cobra enjoyed driving the SUV, and on the day of the trip, in the middle of June, it was very hot. The idea of going up to the cool highlands was not unpleasant.
They left early in the morning on Thursday, market day in Toó, which lay beyond Sololá, to the south of the Ixil region. On reaching the El Trébol junction, where the small republic’s terrestrial arteries converged, Doña Matilde asked whether they could pick up one of her nieces, a neighbour from Toó who was studying at the university. She was also going to the festival, but the public transit had been terrible recently, as everyone knew.
“No problem,” he said. “As long as the old man doesn’t find out.”
Don Emilio Carrión, the old man, was someone whom it was not wise to upset. The Cobra had never got a clear description of his duties as his employee and driver. At first Don Emilio was generous, undemanding. The one thing that was certain was that he had to be punctual and, above all, obedient. In everything.
If Don Emilio advised you to open a savings account at a given bank and you opened it at another one, you lost points. If you hooked up with a woman he didn’t think was suitable and, after being warned, you didn’t break off with her, you lost points. If he pointed out that you needed a haircut and you didn’t cut your hair, you lost points. On the other hand, if you did what he said, you earned points. You had to cash in those imaginary points quickly, as he had learned to do, because otherwise they expired after a few days, erased forever from the old antiquarian’s memory.
“You’re going to be my go-to guy,” he had told him, and the Cobra nodded, thinking that, as in Sonsonate, he would be the debt collector, el cobrador. Without any doubt, it had been an instructive and entertaining job, for a while. It wasn’t a simple one.
The niece was in the Puma gas station just past El Trébol, the nanny said.
Like Doña Matilde, she wore the traditional dress of Toó, but she had running shoes on instead of sandals. She was short and slender, and the Cobra found her very attractive. Her name was Gregoria and she was known as Goya. She was accompanied by a friend. She introduced him: an artist from Lake Atitlán.
He was a thin young man, his hair in a pony-tail, his skin much darker than the girl’s. He carried a white cloth bag from Sololá adorned with abstract bats and cowboy chaps. They could give him a lift, too.
The Cobra went to the toilet and came back to the pumps to pay the bill. Then he opened the luggage compartment so that the passengers could put in their woven backpacks embroidered with Mayan designs. As Doña Matilde’s suggestion the young man moved to the front passenger seat and she got into the back with her niece and they began to talk in Quiché-Maya.
“A first-rate car,” the artist said as he got in.
Along the Panamerican Highway the landscape of mountains and ravines, as though painted on a watercolour, was obstructed by makeshift buildings and walls painted garish colours, and the billboards, large and small, passed in an uninterrupted line.
“Barricades against beauty,” the artist said.
Cascades of plastic and organic garbage appeared at they entered and left each town.
“That’s progress,” he laughed. “And it stinks.”
He gave the honey-coloured leather upholstery that covered the arms of his seat an appreciative stroke. He didn’t speak Quiché, he said, but rather Tzutujil. He had just graduated from high school and wanted to study in the capital because there weren’t any universities where he came from. That was how he had met Goya, who went to Del Valle, a private university that gave scholarships to Mayan students with few resources, like them.
They climbed to the summit at Chupol, and as they passed under the recently constructed overhead catwalk, the artist leaned his head forward to let some saliva fall on the Volvo’s carpet.
“They killed a brother here not long ago,” he said. “They lynched him for running over a drunk.”
“That’s bad,” the Cobra told him, “but don’t stain the car, please.”
“Sorry,” the artist said. “I know I still haven’t learned proper manners.”
They dropped off the artist at Los Encuentros junction, from where he would take a bus to Panajachel to continue his trip by boat to San Pedro La Laguna, where he lived.
The Cobra got out to stretch his legs and breathe in the cool mountain air.
“Gotta take a leak,” the Cobra said, and stood at the edge of the ditch to empty his bladder.
Goya got out and moved into the front seat.
“Do you mind?” she asked.
The Cobra shook his head.
“On the contrary,” he said.
They turned northwards to avoid the dense Friday afternoon pre-festival traffic in Cuatro Caminos. They followed a narrow, twisting road, full of switchbacks and dotted with speed bumps on the few straightaways and in the built-up areas. The passed dried-up maize plots, invaded by climbing beans and zucchini creepers, while scarecrows made of rags and plastic, buffeted by gusts of wind, kept parakeets and grackles at a distance. At the top of the pass a hawk gyrated in silhouette.
Goya said: “He’s looking for rodents.”
They went down into, then climbed out of, a deep ravine covered with trees.
They were communal woods. These were the water sources for Indigenous communities, and the people collected firewood and gathered mushrooms and medicinal herbs here, Goya went on.
“Interesting,” the Cobra said.
Goya wanted to be an astronomer. A teacher who had worked in her village, one of those wayward gringos, who had also been a friend, had become an astrophysicist not long after his stay in Toó. They kept in touch on the internet, and the gringo was encouraging her. She was also studying law, she said, because she knew she wasn’t going to make a living from the stars.
“That’s for sure,” the Cobra said.
Goya: “What about you? Why do they call you that?”
“The name of that snake.”
The Cobra, laughing: “I was the debt collector in a clica back home. The name stuck.”
“What’s a clica?”
“You were in a gang?”
“Yes, in El Salvador. But I managed to get out, thank God.”
He had been waiting on a park bench for the Turk (who in reality was Lebanese) from the fabric store, on the far side of the church, he remembered. The Turk had his store a few blocks from there, behind the cathedral. The Cobra’s older brother sold him protection and the Turk had been paying punctually for more than a year. The second Monday of each month he took a walk through the park and sat down on that bench, underneath an old avocado tree. He pretended to eat a shuco hotdog or a quesadilla with ham. And the Cobra would come up to him, sixteen years old and carrying his shoeshine boy’s box. He carried his heat in there (a Colt .22, an ice axe) and his shining stuff. Only once had he shown the Turk the weapon. The man let him shine his shoes, he paid him with a one-dollar bill and, as a tip, he gave the Cobra a little Pollo Campero bag where, instead of food, there was a wad of bills for the agreed amount.
It was the slight rigidity of the other’s movements in the moment of paying him which made the Cobra understand that they had betrayed him. When he raised his eyes, two police were approaching, one from either side. He glanced behind him. More police. He remained still and reviewed in his mind the number he would have to dial when they let him make his statutory phone call. By luck, he wasn’t carrying the Colt that day. His brother had asked to borrow it the night before.
The Turk walked very quickly towards the other end of the park without looking back.
He got to his feet and, with his hands behind his head, he repeated again and again the numbers that would save him.
“We fucked you good today,” one of the cops said.
The Cobra’s biological father, who was an investigating judge in Sonsonate, had intervened.
“I’m not even sure you’re my son. I’m doing this for your mother.” (A Brazilian lady who had immigrated to El Salvador in the nineties and who was already a wreck). “I’m not going to help you again,” the judge said when he got out of jail, where he had spent a little more than a month. “I want you out of the country before sundown. Yes. There you’re going to work, if you want to, with a gentleman who needs protection. I told him you could do it. It’s good work. Simple. Don’t fuck it up.”
“What was it like for you in jail?” Doña Matilde wanted to know.
In an intimate chamber of his memory, he relived a forgotten scene.
“I’ve got AIDS, you turds,” he shouts.
“So do we!” they answer. Some of his rapists, but not all of them, wear double-layered condoms. He remembered the cardboard that smelled of greasy pizza (Domino’s) that the inmates in the holding cell used as a mattress that night.
“Being big and strong helped me,” he replied as he took a tight curve. “I gave a Guatemalan from Mara 18 a shellacking and after that they left me alone.”
“And why did you come here?” Goya wanted to know.
“The judge was a friend of the old man. Politics,” the Cobra explained. “It was because of him they sent me. As for my poor mother, I didn’t see her again. She died of cancer about a year after all that.”
If the Cobra hadn’t had much luck in other aspects of his life, he was a champion when it came to the opposite sex. A combination of natural gifts and good fortune had placed a series of women within his reach who would have sparked the envy of any tropical Don Juan. At the age of thirteen, he found his first teachers among his mother’s girlfriends: dancers and masseuses. The women who, having ventured into the realm of his physical attraction, tried or were able to resist him were few in number.
Doña Matilde’s niece looked at him out of the corner of her eye every now and then.
Walls of bare rock stretched up on the sides of the road, bright with moisture and crowned with trees. Though it was the dry season, mist streamed in torrents from the crests of the mountains in front of them. The glistening black road doubled back on itself a number of times before it reached the summit. On the other side was Patzité, where they turned left towards the valley of Toó, which divided the forest in two.
Before they entered San Miguel, the regional capital Doña Matilde (whom her niece called Tilde), leaned forward to tell the Cobra: “See that little path to the right. That’s where you turn.”
The dirt road ran alongside a hill covered with small maize plots. Avocado trees with abundant green crowns like balloons were visible here and there. The road widened as a minivan loaded with musical instruments came the other way.
“Go ahead! Go ahead, go ahead!”
“Thanks a lot!”
They skidded past and in a short while they reached the foot of a mountain that resembled a cathedral. Its summit was lost amid the inverted plains of grey clouds. A grim but beautiful place, the Cobra thought. Gusts of cold air came in the Volvo’s window that the girl had left open. The road ended there.
“You turn here,” Doña Matilde said, and pointed to a very short alley that ran downhill to the left.
There were two houses that looked as though they were buried in the hillside, their roofs of chocolate-coloured tiles were almost level with the road. The walls, recently whitewashed, were of adobe and wattle and daub. Beyond the houses were more small maize plots on narrow terraces. The green corn plants glowed in the afternoon light.
The Cobra stopped the Volvo and turned off the engine.
“This is my home,” Matilde said.
On the other side on the road was a pergola made out of cane stalks that served as a parking spot for an old but well-preserved Willys Jeep.
A man appeared next to the jeep. A circumspect greeting. On seeing the girl get down out of the car, he raised his arms, smiling, thanking God because his daughter had returned safe and sound from the city.
Goya introduced Rafael Soto, known as the Cobra, from El Salvador, who had brough Aunt Matilde to Toó for the festival. Don Atanasio Akiral thanked him for driving the women and invited him into the house.
They passed through a very low door into a kind of entranceway. Don Atanasio warned the Cobra, the tallest of the group, against banging his head on the lintel. In a tiny interior garden that opened off the hall there was a dog cage with bundles of firewood on either side. A black puppy came out of the cage and began to bark, straining at its leash. Flowerpots full of daisies, hibiscus and periwinkles dotted the garden, as in the houses in Sonsonate. A concrete laundry sink stood at the end of the hall and a cat the colour of an ocelot slept peacefully next to the basin, while a thread of water overflowed from a plastic pitcher. In flowerpots set out on cement blocks on a red tile floor, or hung from thick wooden beams, tomatoes, maidenhair, chili peppers and Mexican oregano were growing. A Quiché woman, her hair woven into thick braids, was sitting on a pine stool. She got to her feet to hug her daughter and Doña Tilde. Then she greeted the Cobra.
It was time to make tortillas, she said, and invited them into the house.
The bare ceiling of dark wood was low and the glowing embers in an old terracotta stove accentuated the atmosphere’s intimacy. On a stone bench next to the stove there was a ceramic filter, and Doña Desideria began to fill glasses of water for the new arrivals. They sat at the table facing the stove while the tortillas turned brown in a clay skillet.
That Sunday, June 11, was the Day of the Eternal Father, Don Atanasio said. The people from the next county celebrated it since He was their patron. For that reason, at sunset they would start to put out “carpets” of flowers and sawdust in the street for a little procession.
Had they seen the announcements on the walls of the town hall? No traffic was allowed after five today because of the flower carpets. He himself, who was serving as Mayan mayor of the community this year (his black ritual staff of office with its silver pommel hung high up on the wall rack designed for the purpose), had issued this decree.
“I better get going, then,” the Cobra said on hearing this. He left the bowl of hot atole that Doña Desideria had just given him.
Doña Matilde laid a hand on his arm and said: “It’s four-thirty. Why don’t you stay and eat with us? You can leave at noon tomorrow. The boss’ll understand.”
Don Atanasio and Doña Desideria insisted. He had to stay; it would be a honour for them to receive him. On the other side of the elongated patio there was a spare room that used to belong to the grandfather and after that to an older brother who lived in Quetzaltenango.
They phoned the boss, Don Emilio. He knew it was a festival day and hadn’t counted on the Cobra returning until tomorrow, he said.
“It’s easy to work with a boss like that,” Don Atanasio said.
The Cobra said it was true.
Doña Matilde soon bid them farewell and the Cobra went with her to get his suitcase out of the Volvo. He left her at the opposite end of the dirt street, in front of the house that had belonged to her mother, who had died last year.
He stepped out of his room very early in the morning and in the hall he met Don Atanasio, who was sweeping the floor with a broom made out of roots while Doña Desideria washed clothes in the concrete laundry sink. They invited him to use the bathroom, which was at the end of the hall. He washed by slurping his body with the hot water that Doña Desideria had set out in two plastic buckets. A little later he went to sit with the couple in the living room, in front of a television where the news was on. The girl still hadn’t woken up. Don Atanasio, sitting at the head of the table for breakfast, gave thanks to God and to the “holy maize patch” and prayed for the defenceless, the ill and those who were in jail. Doña Desideria served cups of coffee and hot chocolate and some wheat tortillas recently cooked on the stove, which the Cobra praised. She and Don Atanasio came out to the entranceway to bid him farewell. On the weekends, they explained, Goya like to sleep very late.
“Now you know,” said Don Atanasio, Mayan mayor and elder of the tiny kingdom of Toó. “When you come back, if you come back, this house is your home.”
They didn’t suspect a thing, the Cobra thought, as he drove the Volvo down the Panamerican, farther and farther from Toó, and that was a good thing. He was remembering his escapade with little Goya, which had happened due to a mysterious coincidence. At some point in the night he had woken up. The room where Goya was sleeping was at the other end of the house, but it seemed to him that he heard her cough—once, twice, three times. The parents’ room was next to the kitchen. He groped his way out into the hall. He saw the slight figure of the aspiring astronomer cross the patio without turning back to look at him. But it was as though the silhouette beneath the light of the night sky were asking him to go after her, and he followed her. Soon the two of them were alone behind the house, where there were no windows. They fell together behind a tree with a twisted trunk and branches.
“You know what I like most about you?”
“Your smell, first of all.”
“What do I smell like?” the Cobra asked.
“You smell like clean.”
“Then, your size.”
“Really. I feel like a little girl in your arms.”
He laughed again. He was thinking about a different part of his anatomy. But he could see what she meant. She barely came up to his chest.
“And the third?”
“That you’re Salvadoran. I can’t stand mestizo guys from here.”
“You don’t get it, do you? But they’re all, every last one of them, utter shits. One day I’m going to explain it to you. Or aren’t we going to see each other again?”
“God knows,” the Cobra said.
“I have no idea what your God might be like.”
“I’ve got several.”
“Yes, of course.”
Goya said that was how it was.
A moment later she got up and wrapped herself in her Mayan skirt. With tiny, silent steps she returned to the house.
Lying on his back, his fingers laced together behind his head beneath the cold and the stars scattered through the sky, or gathered together in figures that Goya had taught him to recognize, he was happy. The Cloud Serpent, the Ocelot, the Tortoise, he repeated to himself, running his gaze over the sky. That one, alone and brighter than the others, was Xuk Ek, the Wasp Star, which wasn’t a star at all but the planet Venus.
Excerpted from The Country of Toó by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (translated by Stephen Henighan). Copyright © Rodrigo Rey Rosa, 2023. Translation copyright © Stephen Henighan, 2023. Excerpted with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.