He regained his senses at the door of his Deville. He’d finally had it restored and painted firefuckinengine red, in the proper super-high gloss. Ted got in, checked his hair and roared off, wisps of California nightlife playing magnificently off the chrome. The curvy silhouette of his date dripped honey in his ear, “She handles beautifully.” He nodded, jaw tense, as he barreled around a corner and opened it up. “Ooh!” she gasped as he slipped through a red light. Her features were indiscernible in the darkness. He could see just the ashen blonde edges of her hair, cropped at the shoulder. He found the road again just in time to dodge an idling taxi with a deft maneuver. “That’s it!” she cooed. His hands guided the machine into more heavily trafficked neighborhoods, weaving through the other cars with purpose. “That is how you drive!” With each squeal of tires, every lurch, his companion urged and moaned, pushing him to push the car, his shirt soaked with sweat, until all he could hear was her screaming “Go! Drive!” He jerked the wheel with white knuckles. He looked hard at the woman, trying to make out her face in the streetlight. Groping for the light, he suddenly exploded through the windshield in slow motion, hearing the tink of each shard of glass floating around him, through him, until he landed limply on the blacktop. Lightposts and skyscrapers loomed and swayed above him, dancing back and forth to the hiss of rain on pavement, the last number of the night. Then she was over him, looking down. It was Margareta, angelic and glorious. Ted thought she had come to claim him, but she faded. There were only the signs and buildings of the city, cold dervishes spinning and whipping wildly over the street, over his broken, dying body, fading out.
He regained his senses on the jungle floor, his face covered in blood and mud and his leg screaming. A storm thrashed the moonlit treetops above. He screamed. In a panic Ted tried to lunge forward, away from the pain, but he was held fast to the mossy jungle floor, fading out.
For the duration of the storm he sat, half-buried in mud, in a ditch behind Rudi’s dilapidated home. For days heavy torrents and gales beat the earth with frantic noise. Cyclones of mad dreams whirled in his semi-conscious mind as he wandered between worlds, his mind flailing to grab hold of anything but confusion and pain. In the darkness, dreams of knife flashes and milk-thighed urgencies, of hot spite and bitter love tortured him. When his eyes opened, nature’s tantrums buffeted his face, sharp fingers of broken bone plucked staccato rhythms of agony upon his body, sending him spiraling back into his nightmares. He had no refuge. He could only keep drifting from world to world, drowsily savoring the in-between times. Impotent, Ted swam in his fevers, battered by the wind and the rain.
As the storm subsided and the warmth of the sun touched his eyelids, the curtains of concussion began to open. Muddy run-off from the steep mountain was flowing across his lap. Ted wondered if he could trust it. He was deathly thirsty and tried a handful. It was gritty and tasted of rotten leaves and urine. He spit it out along with some partially congealed blood. While he was unconscious his grinding teeth had shredded his inner cheeks and much of his tongue. The heavy rain had splattered him with mud, leaving him covered in mottled filth. Streaks of his fevered sweat had carved angular channels in the layers caking the toonish arcana of his vainglorious arms.
A distant rumble of thunder cut him to the stem and hinted that perhaps portions of the grand forest were still being punished. He shuddered to think of the storm’s return. He dimly remembered repeatedly having dreamed of drowning or being suffocated, then waking up with the rain beating his face and the howling wind sounding something like a sobbing child.
Moving was difficult. Any shift of position intensified the pounding in his temples. His glasses had broken in the fall, gouging the bridge of his nose. He could feel the dirty scab twisting down the middle of his face. His whole body hurt. The lazy ache in his head drifted down his body to meet sharp jabbings rising from his right ankle. The sensations blended into a throbbing cramp in his groin. The headache he could push through. This wasn’t his first lights-out concussion.
The ankle, however, was alarming. He knew it was broken, but how badly? Ted held out hope that he could hobble the three or four miles of trail back to the road. He certainly couldn’t expect any help from his formerly gracious hosts. Trying to lift his leg out of the mud, he cut short a scream. Oh no! Was he heard? He winced nervously through the brush toward Rudi’s cabin. Nothing was stirring.
Again he heard faraway thunder, but the tone was thin and the sky clear. It didn’t seem real. He realized it was snoring. Rudi was sleeping off another late drunk. Listening now above the water running over his lap, Ted could also hear Soleese munching and pawing the ground nearby.
Well, if he couldn’t walk out he would have to ride.
The rope he found laying around was heavy and slick with mud. Ted had dragged himself to a broken split-rail just behind the cabin. He had difficulty with the simple slip knot he used to think he’d never forget. It was funny how the old movies never showed cowboys actually tying any lassos. They were always at the ready. Funny, he thought, what comes to mind sometimes. Really funny. His hands were shaking with frustration and hunger and creeping dread. Hilarious. Fresh tears wet his cheeks before he held a workable loop.
The elderly grey donkey milled about calmly, occasionally glancing at the muttering man. Whatever humans fussed about rarely affected it. It had everything it needed here at the cabin so it stayed, unfettered. The large, cloudy eyes became suspicious, though, as this strange new human hopped closer. It had been a long time since the beast had smelled such desperation.
Ted managed to rope Soleese with just a couple of tosses of the loop and without panicking the animal. When he tried to pull it close enough to mount, however, Soleese began to whinny and jerk. Ted’s head snapped toward the suddenly silent cabin.
“Soleese! QUIETO!” The shack rang with impact of another pot against the wall.
Ted waited many minutes, then resumed breathing. Soleese seemed more submissive after the scolding, but Ted still doubted his chances of getting onto the donkey to ride. Holding the rope, he flipped over a splintered bench from beside the house. He sat with his back braced against one set of legs and his own injured extremity sticking out ahead. With the slack end of the rope he whipped Soleese on the rear. Soleese jumped, startled, but with a second whipping he began to pull, plodding down the trail from his masters’ home. This relationship was familiar to the animal. Though the trail was painfully bumpy, Ted was beaming. It wouldn’t be more than a quick jaunt down to the road, down to what passed for civilization around here. He’d even been able to nab a handful of coca leaves as he skidded past the neglected sacks. He was triumphant.
Inside, Rudi was snoring again.
After days of rain the jungle was calm again, hot, dripping and content. Golden light floated on the hum of a cool breeze. Ted felt his panic receding and let the scenery peel back his cynical scowl. He sucked coca leaves to quell the pain in his leg. He was now surrounded by the verdant paradise of a child’s dream, more beautiful and soothing than any place an adult expected to find in waking life. Technicolor birds swooped cheerfully. It even seemed to him that Soleese was picking a soft and careful path through the trees as not to jar him. “Thank you mi smelly amigo,” said Ted with great pomp. “You will be handsomely rewarded.” Soleese snorted.
Ted could hear the rushing of a nearby waterfall. He had a sense that if he could peer over the next ridge he could spy on a secret accord between parrots and apes in the spray of the falls, sealing a treaty to share the treetops after centuries of bloody warfare. Anything less magical would have seemed unreal at this point. Rudi was lucky to have all this as his world, thought Ted. He was suddenly guilt-stricken. The old man had fought and endured so much to hold onto his small piece of this wonderful place. He lived simply and took in strangers without reserve, and how did Ted show his respect? By insulting his wife. By cursing the man. By stealing his donkey! There wasn’t anything he could do now to redeem himself. The rules here were simple and he’d trampled them all. Maybe he could find a way to return Soleese, find someone on the main road to bring the donkey back…
His mind came around full circle and focused on the present. Where was the road? Where the hell had Soleese taken them? Ted looked behind and realized they had been going steadily uphill for some time. They were now on a narrow hillside trail with a steep dropoff to their left.
“Damnit Soleese, the road is at the bottom of the valley! How long have we been climbing?” He gave the rope a jerk. The animal pulled back sharply and continued up the trail. Ted cursed and jerked the rope harder and Soleese stopped.
“Turn around dimwit!” He pulled with one hand and whipped the donkey with the other. Soleese didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t room on the trail to get by this angry man and go the other way. It pawed the ground in frustration.
“Idiot!” Red-faced and screaming, Ted grabbed a large stick from the ground and swung it threateningly. “Ass! Moron! Damn you!” The donkey didn’t react, which enraged Ted further. “Fucking beast!” He swung again and connected. Soleese reared and jumped, sending Ted and the bench into the air. They came down on top of Soleese and all three tumbled off the trail, rolling over each other down the embankment and into the brush.
Ted groaned. He hurt all over, again. There were broken ribs now, and Soleese lay across his twisted legs, but it was all a distant pain, faraway seeming. He was pretty sure he knew what that meant. The breathing of the donkey on top of him was as labored as his own. Soleese was broken as well. The golden hum of the forest was supplanted by an eerie green radiance.
As Soleese’s breathing slowed, Ted counted down the animal’s final breaths, without pity and without spite. Soon his prophet, his savior, his executioner was gone. Ted thought of Margareta, strong and proud. He recalled her eyes, huge, cold, dark as a grave, banishing him. They floated over him now. A madly yellow bird started and flew out of a nearby tree. Ted watched it fly across those eyes until it was a rapidly fading peripheral ghost. As it faded, the ghost drew away with it the unearthly greens of the earlier light, leaving Ted in a cool, gray place. The mossy ground cradled his head like a mother. Peru became quiet for him. He began counting down.