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Bird Stamp 

fiction by Paul K. Haeder


She holds the glassy rock from Deep Creek Canyon -- chipped from 16 million-year-old Columbia River Plateau basalt -- while watching the sea west toward Tulum, sifting hues of blues and greens into the coral reef where tangs and parrotfish and damsels zip and zigzag in the summer light. He's sleeping in the hammock on the porch where the 90-degree air tussles his gray hair. Near the bottle of half-had rum, his faded passport lays open to a colorfully stamped page. "Is it an act of faith to expect him to stay with me, to hold me when the radiation and chemo make me look like my snowman? Will he be there when I vomit up chunks of my gut? Will he want me when I don't remember his name?"


Birds -- gulls and pelicans and these black and white waders whose name she can't recall, maybe a hooked-beak clammer, or something in Spanish of Nahuatl -- are bombing the secluded beach down below the resort, pajaros azules aguas, blue water birds. Tearing and jostling for a position to chew on the bloated shark that's on the beach, the birds seem like the little greedy humans on the Mosquito Coast in Nicaragua who from time to time find the 500-kilo loads from cocaine smugglers who've run aground or afoul. Things like that stick to her, since the first bout of chemo and radiation. A story out of the International Herald Tribune or Christian Science Monitor, read in a doctor's office, or on the jet from Seattle on the way down here -- poor Nicas -- Nicaraguans -- getting set for life after finding a load of coke on the beach. Entire neighborhoods decimated by cocaine addiction.


Odd things she remembers. And forgets.


The birds scramble over the shark's mottled skin, slicing into the tough shark hide. She remembers the parties in Missoula and Portland. They gobbled caviar and inhaled line after line of Peruvian dust. Over and over, the people kept pushing and shoving for more and more of the drug. Gallon after gallon of Seagram's and Southern Comfort gulped down. Discarded bones from sticky chicken wings in the condo's fireplace like a pyre of Viking bones. T-bones full of pink gristle thrown in the koi pool. "What a terrible greedy lot we were," she thinks. "Young, self-indulgent, way before my Spokane cloistering. God, like a lifetime away."


She wonders what images will pop into her head when she's going in and out of consciousness during chemo, surgery, death. That clear, sharp serpentine Little Spokane River in her kayak with blue herons dive-bombing cottonwoods? The time she was so silent on the river that she and her kayak almost went under the belly of a bull moose who was chomping down on daffodils? "Is that what death is about, departing the place where memory is sealed inside some real and beautiful natural world?"


The birds on the Mayan beach are frantic, scraping the cement-hard bulwark of the sea wall with bloody feet. Chunks of softball-sized pebble-encrusted coral splash into the sea. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are on upstairs in another tourist's cabana. Refugee and smiling through the free fallin' . . . where Mary Jane had her last dance . . . she remembers the music, remembers Tom Petty at one of those parties in Sandpoint. Somewhere.


She's feeling heavy like that solid carved snowman she has outside their entrance in her Spokane triple story overlooking Hangman Creek. This weird white elephant of a thing -- 4 feet tall, carved out of white pine by a one-armed Vietnam veteran from Ione. Funny scarf wrapping around the fat jolly corpulence. A chimney sweep's hat barely covering the round head. Pelon. "Baldy" in Spanish. Painted white and plaid. All solid wood. She wanted the 6-foot-tall grizzly bear in the jujitsu pose. But he opted for the kitschy design.





Stuck on the cool Mexican tile, the smell of antiseptic mixing with the Caribbean breeze and the hot gas coming from the bloated shark, she tries sliding her heavy limbs, and wonders: "Hammerhead? Nurse shark? Lemon?" She can't tell. But she feels the coolness under her bare feet and thinks of the cold black eyes of a great white shark. The "Cozumel Is Fun" tote bag is filled with cans of jalapenos, a six-pack of Corona, vanilla extract, things she can buy back in Spokane. And the small jaw of a blue shark, bleached, three rows of sharp teeth in a yawn.


She can't watch him sleeping anymore. The passport, open, fluttering in the breeze, something inside her thinks she might get to witness something deeper in him if she looks. Hidden man. Deceptive husband. Those two months he was away, in Manzanillo, Veracruz, Campeche, working to put in oil refineries. Junkets away from Spokane and the Seattle office so he can frolic with his senoritas. She can only imagine.


She can't take that barrage of pain during a third bout with chemo and radiation.


She told him to stay in Mexico, finish the contract, that the cancer was treatable. The first chemo would be a cakewalk. "I'm the stronger swimmer of both of us. Get real. I can take pain."


Will he be there when I'm crawling on all fours? He wasn't after the Ironman race in Coeur d'Alene. Didn't stay for my sister's mastectomy. Will he be there for his old wife's death?


The quetzals are wonderful in his passport. She imagines him, in some jungle town, dancing with flocks of the rare bird overhead, buzzing into the foliage, into the woman's sweet sweaty breaths. Five bird stamps, five entries he made into Guatemala. She only remembers him mentioning two.


She touches the colorful stamps. Thinks about the green carpets of cloud-encrusted jungle. Belize. Guatemala. For thirty years, they had their secrets. Now his are stamped on the passport. Open. Places they haven't shared together. Never will. While she was spitting up blood in Spokane. While he was south, here, in Mexico, supposedly putting his nose to the grindstone.





The quetzal is so beautiful. How wonderful?" How will he shrug this off? Business trip. Geologists and geophysicists looking for up-thrusts, pockets of methane, some quiver in the seismic readings? He's a steady man.


He smiles in the hammock, still sleeping off the night dive, the frivolity of the post-dive drinking in the Mexican "part" of Cozumel. She was so gallant underwater, so focused. She drifted in the beams of their underwater lights. It was like being inside a space continuum, or wormhole. So many odd shapes of fish and crustaceans and feathery coral creatures as the heavy current drifted them closer and closer to the 1,500-foot drop-off.


The quetzals are almost alive in his passport. She imagines him dancing with a short, young woman, this woman's face the color of coffee and cream, the young girl's long black hair touching the floor as they dance and laugh and hold each other. Strangers. Stranger touching, stranger sex, stranger morning after. All exotic stranger experiences. If not a dark woman from Guatemala, then some biker babe from Spokane.


The little bird in his heart that must have fluttered when he imagined his wife vomiting up blood and guts. Little bird inside him wanting to go south, to the warm womb of the tropics, to this woman's open arms and legs.


She thinks about bald eagles yanking kokanee out of the lake. Spinal cord ripped from his splayed body.


And as she touches the passport, the stamp, the smudged bird, she imagines the quetzal spreading its wings, taking her away from the cancer ward, back to the sea, this place, underneath the world just yards out there past the bloating shark and tugging terns, where the sun is absorbed by the dancing fish. Like fairies dancing on ancient Mayan tombs.





v v v





Not so safe, not for you, not for me. Going deep, well, there is a balance between the blue, aquamarine, and the current that takes you into the blackness. Que capacidad, we say. Como se dice, "surreal"? What do we say, "fantastical" and "real" at the same time? Some force, it drives us to that edge, to the limit," Roberto says, his eyes sharp piercing obsidian watching the bumper-to-bumper cars and motorcycles stream outside in the street while still absorbing Bettina's presence, and the presence of the two other guys, his assistants, dive masters Juanito and Mario. Roberto looks like a very young Robert Blake -- but he's darker than Blake, a little hefty, like in Blake's Baretta days, but strong. He's wearing the same trunks he had on during the two dives he supervised that afternoon. He's got no shirt on.


"Big sponges . . . you can park a Volkswagen bug inside some of them . . . muy grande. Black coral branches as big as olive trees. Incredible. People go there, illegally, and attempt to harvest the coral from the marine reserve. Several have penetrated the reserve . . . at night. Bye-bye . . . down, down, down they go, lost inside the Mayan miasma, no? Rapture of the depths, they call it. I am not referring to nitrogen narcosis. I'm not referring necessarily to some divine rapture, tampoco. Spiritual, no? Or primal? Whatever you call it, I cannot risk that with a fine tourist like yourself." Roberto looks grave, throws a hard look out toward the moving cars and locals and tourists.


"I've been on more than a dozen dives here. I mean, sure, I want to have you take me down deep, but I don't want to risk your license. You yourself offered, but I don't want to jeopardize things for you. And it is a day dive, Roberto. No en la noche," Bettina says. She's been talking to Roberto in the dive shop - El Caribe Charters -- for two hours. One hour after her husband, Victor, opted out, instead needing some unwinding from the two dives - the turistas unwind a la Senor Frog's: loud tanned women, cruise ship personnel in an overflowing dervish, hot and spicy food, bottomless margaritas and tequila sunrises.


She feels the Guatemalan stamp, looks at the patchwork of stamps from Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, Panama. Big man in the geological sciences. Exotic places. The usual suspects - big spenders, Mercedes Benzes, helicopters, big government deals, wheeling and dealing, booze, women, Third World exploitation.


She wonders how old the girls are, if there's one woman, hoping for an escape to El Norte. Victor Galway, hailing from Spokane, via Colorado, Texas, Venezuela. And his entourage. What's Victor going to do, bring some poor girl who's bent over for him to Spokane? To live on the South Hill, dine at the Davenport?


She remembers Victor opting out time and time again when she had just gotten into a conversation with some stranger, a man with lesser financial means or goals but with -- what, more disposition to understand a woman? A sweet peck on her cheek, a see-ya-later wave, his nervousness around a loose cannon like Roberto -- seasoned in the art of conversation in several languages, accomplished musician, renegade roustabout of the world, full of laughter and intensity - Victor exited.


Is he really thinking Roberto and I are going to 'do it,' as he always says? 'That's how his cheating mind works,' my Tara says. Roberto and me in the hammock out back to ease Victor's dirty conscience?





She wants to hear all the ins and outs of Roberto's diving experience around the island, around the other parts of Mexico Roberto's dived. General diver b.s. from Roberto's two dive masters and the two other tourist divers who were on the same outing. Those two honchos from Texas finally called it a night 10 minutes ago, looking for some tequila, their Lone Star libidos lusting for some white trash tango.


She never expected this funny, goofy man who she barely knows - just met him two days ago on the first two dives and the night dive -- to be so, it's hard to pin down for Bettina, so paranoid but real and funny and erudite. Articulate but intensely funny. Cantiflas gestures but Jean-Paul Belmondo's face and a young Robert Blake's physique. Just yesterday, he was all calm and business-like, working diligently to make sure his customers - mostly rowdy and overconfident Texans - didn't screw up and end up bent. The dive masters and the captain and all the other support staff show him a big slice of respect . . . but then there is that respect coming from the place of fear. Fear of his conspiracy theories about the island's police chief and the immigration honcho and drug importation.


Roberto smiles, then mimics playing a trumpet. A hyper-sweaty Miles Davis under purple and blue light is on a poster behind him, crowded out by dive merchandise logos and promos. The office smells of antiseptic. It's jammed full of equipment in various states of repair and disrepair. Yma Sumac is low on his cheap boom box, sounding like a cross between a mermaid sinking into the deep, drawing her human swimmers nearer and a pod of whales lifting water in their bubble net. It's everything Spokane is not, and Bettina thinks for a moment she can have this out-of-body experience where she is actually far from the Inland Northwest, away from the dank light, the snap of winter in the air half the year, far from the sameness of people who have money - like her and Victor -- and who care little for the other three-quarters who don't.


Bettina's sitting on a cot where Roberto sometimes sleeps after unloading the gear and making sure his assistants clean and prep it and charge the tanks for the next day's dives. He tells her that he rarely makes it back to his apartment in the scummy part of Cozumel - "what you call a dive, so to speak" - the part of town Bettina wants to spend time in.


Two young shirtless men, their skin smooth and hairless, light coffee-colored epidermis, come by and rap on the window. The two dive masters tilt their heads back, and Roberto hand motions to them all to settle down. He semi-bows to Bettina, and puts his stubby thumb and index finger ever so close to each other and says in a kind voice, Momentito, por favor. Bebitas y motitas, su puesto.


Bettina smiles. The smell of pot, one of macho dive masters popping the Bohemia beer bottle cap off with a quick and graceful pop of his palm on the edge of an old valveless tank, the sound of marimbas somewhere out in the street, Yma Sumac on the boom box, the sound of the ocean a block west down the cobbled street, and this master of disguise, Roberto, smooth and handsome, but so platonic in his suave manner -- yes, Bettina is now comfortable again, after the dive, after the belly and uterine pain when they reached 100 feet, after the twinge of tachycardia as they descended. She didn't tell Victor or Roberto about the post-chemo quirks, and they eased, almost vanished at 120 feet. She wants her cancer, the impending Hiroshima treatment, the hairlessness and upchucking, all of the mortal mess she will be about to experience in Spokane under a canopy of icy Ponderosa trees and that diffused post-nuclear bomb light, she wants that to not be between her and Roberto.


But she senses his keenness, that he has that innate ability, even at just forty-three years of age, to see inside people. Especially the superficial Yanquis and Texas tornados who have to be scolded by this "lesser" man, a Mexican who is servicing the Americans, instructing them in how to equalize their eustachian tubes correctly, to listen to and watch the dive master as if he is their daddy, and to leave the pokers and metal prods and spear guns back in their hotels. "It is, after all, a marine reserve, and any reef damage attributable to one of my divers, well, there are fines . . . possible jail terms. For both the dive master and his charges." Roberto likes it when rich, powerful Americans from Dallas to Seattle flinch over the possibility of losing all freedom in a Mexican jail.





v v v





While sipping the full-bodied pilsner Juanito just opened for her, Bettina goes back to the previous day....


Roberto explains -- between drags of pot -- the cot's


an option for when he hasn't gotten an invitation from a turista to watch her drink Don Pedro brandy and cokes while he smokes mota and then witnesses her clumsy and drunk and scuba-wasted body yaw toward him in her attempt to sleep with a native man who plays trombone riffs on the balcony overlooking the malecon and the deep ink sea filled with aurora borealis bioluminescence.


"A brush with exoticness, yo? Verdad, that's what they say. Blondes, these, I don't know what to call them, these reality television gurus. Yo, sexy? I'm not Brad Pitt prancing around, no siree, but they find my toussled hair and verbosity, well, sexy. You're Americana, you tell me what it is that I am duping them into."


According to Roberto, he nonchalantly tells Bettina, the "it" -- the motion toward intercourse -- usually begins at an outdoor restaurant. The foreplay - caricias estimulantes -- and then it shifts to her air-conditioned room in whichever tourist hotel along the western side of the island her travel agent has thrown in with the three-day "drink and dive the exotic waters of the Mayan" package trip to Cozumel.


"It's a matter of vulgarity, with many of your American sisters. They want - expect - all us Mexicans to be vulgar, nothing but fornicating beetles. Bedbugs with their penises pushed through the ladybug. Traumatic insemination, I believe it's called at the beetle level. They want to know the Mexican slang for everything. Tits, well, we say shelves, repisas. How many ways to say 'we have to have sex,' that's what's on their minds. Subir al guayabo - go up to the jelly. Or words for their genitalia. La panocha -- sweetbread. And an affair out of marriage - bombear -- to pump, literally. You tell me, since I am hard pressed to understand your fellow travelers from, a donde? - Spokane, Washington. What would a girl from Spokane need with the vulgarities of the street in my country? Interesting."


Bettina is intrigued, all the Spanish slang for the sexual acts and positions and crude street cussing, between a man and woman, a man and man, a woman and woman. Revisar los interiors -- visiting the interior parts -- fornicating. Angel de la guardia - condom. She sinks into Roberto's paranoid but cogent world.


It's a matter of me, shhh, a comunista, si, una comunista from Acapulco, anti-capitalista who plays the salsa trombone and slides with Miles, yes, a matter of having conjugal visitations with some of your more -- what do you say? -- peppy American brethren. A little drink here and mucho shots of tequila there, and, voila, your estranski Americanski, well, she just goes ga-ga over the swarthy man from Mexico showing her the fine points of salsa trombone breathing and vulgar slang, all of which incapacitates her into her American drink-and-drown ecstasy.


Bettina sees how serious he is after the dive. Out of the blue, when one of the Dallas 'gurls' keeps pawing at him, Roberto tells Bettina so earnestly these insights about Americans, about American women, about the American system, as if Bettina has been Roberto's long-lost confidante. With his intense gaze from the big deep blues looking directly into Bettina's chemo-weary hazel-green eyes, he is honest. And he seems to know the worry inside her, the scarred insides, the two feet of intestine and part of the colon cut away and thrown into a Zip-Lock bag and incinerated. And Roberto listens and speaks to her, with the added droplets of rain he frequently mimes with his ten strong, stubby fingers as an accent to his discussion. And down, down, down, la senorita capitalista will go with the funny man with the jet fins on and who has bursitis from too many dives.


For some unknown reason - trapped nitrogen slithering through her medulla oblongata, the giddiness of seeing so many marine creatures under the blanket of night - she laughs hysterically. And she can't stop. Roberto stays serious, deadpan, lifts a bottle of beer in a toast - salud -- while Victor lifts his bony shoulders and twirls his triple-jointed index finger around and around his ear, to indicate "my wife's a loony." All the while watching the blonde scuba diver from Denton - senorita rubia capitalista - adjust her screaming pink thong-thing.





v v v





Ha, my license? I'm what, as you put it in America, a marked man? The island's commissioner of tourism, he's a very interesting foe of mine. From Mexico City. Ex-security colonel for the president's office. Has his hand in smuggling, taking the bite - mordida - from the dive shop owners. He's got me marked. It's just a matter of time before they yank my license. He's waiting for me to mess up one more time, and then, plop, plop, plop." He makes that trademark childlike series of hand gestures indicating descending bubbles. She laughs.


"You have a reputation that precedes yourself," she adds. Roberto looks at her nonplused, almost too serious, even though she was just kidding.


"Rumors. Yes, I know. Rumors like that have grounded me. Shut me down for months. I have been so frightened to go back in the water because of those so-called rumors." He lets his fingers cascade and flutter down again. He smiles at the word "frightened."


"Roberto, I mean a good reputation, good rumors. 'The best diver on the island,' that's all I hear. Someone who's dealt with all sorts . . . cases like me . . ." She imagines the lines of chemo tethered to her - "special cases like me" -- and the radioactive seeds inside her uterine cavity floating as she glides closer to the dark inky edge of the drop-off which is huge trench between Cozumel and the Yucatan coast.


"You know, it has been two months since I last dove. Today, my fine Americana, and last night, were the first in two months. I am still apprehensive. Paranoid, no. Six months since the incident. But I have to get back onto the bicycle. Try again. You compelled me, motivated me, Mrs. Galway."


Mario lights up a thick but well-sealed joint, passes it to Bettina, who pulls slowly, and then passes it to Roberto. He smiles as Bettina lets out a ring of smoke. She gulps, smiles, and coughs a bit.


"Two months dry-docked until today, senora. Two months since the situation with the Japanese. Before that, six months ago, the three U.S. Marines and their disappearance. At least that is what they told me, that they were from your military. Marines? Army? Back from Iraq. Showed me burns on their rib cages. Showed me their identifications. Six people in less than half a year, lost. And then a bent dive master to add to that humillacion. You can see him walking down this street, twice a day. He goes to the recompression chamber for treatment. Walks with a pronounced limp. The nitrogen came out of solution, turned around in his spinal column, and lodged between nerves. He comes by here for some money. Loans. Drinks mango and some Chinese infusion of herbs and dried animal organs to alleviate the pain. So much for the heroics of we underpaid workers of the rich Americanos in Houston. David. Da-veed en espanol. He went many yards below the maximum depth range in order to try and retrieve the Japanese. Two hundred and fifty or sixty feet. It was a planned 80-foot dive to the caves. We weren't prepared for anything that deep. The Japanese just went, plop, plop, plop. And, if you ever make it to narced divers - believe me, I have had the unfortunate experience with this situacion several times - they can go crazy. Tear at your regulator, after they have discarded their own tether to air. Bring the dive master right down with them."


Roberto stops, shakes his head vigorously, again motioning with his thick fingers the drop, drop, drop of rain or bubbles in an upside down world he has imagined.


"Wandered off. Kept swimming away from the group, and before we knew it, plop, plop, plop - 180, then 190, 200 feet. Pretty soon they had gone way below the 220 mark. Marked for death." He slides his big paws over his forehead, pushes the sweat back into his thick, shiny hair.


"Terrible. But it isn't your fault if they go off on their own. Disobey the dive plan," she insists. "How can you be blamed if they take it upon themselves to self-destruct?"


He smiles, appreciatively, as if gaining a spiritual refuge inside the respect and manner of this woman from Spokane. "Complete supremacy -- that is what the dive master holds over the tourists. I should have resisted. Very lousy English, these guys from Nippon. No Spanish skills. They just nodded on the surface before we went under. As if they understood my every word. I was the only dive master on the island who would even risk the liability. They went, plop, plop, plop."


Roberto gulps in more hot, wet marijuana-singed air, then passes the joint to Juanito, who doesn't drag, instead passing it to Bettina again.


"It's a matter of Martini's law, right," she said. "Me, for instance, many men - including Victor, my husband, el macho -- think because I am so slight that I am so susceptible to the rapture of the depths. But I don't have the effects at a 150 compared to some of the fellows I dive with in our neck of the woods -- Lake Pend Oreille. Whereas Victor is gassed at that same depth. Like five Martinis at 150 feet. In really cold water in one of America's deepest lakes in Idaho, I hold up. It's not your fault when good guys have bad things happen to them."


"Very kind. Very kind. But I was the lead diver. I had 13 others to take care of. I went 222 feet. David, well, I motioned to him not to come down that deep. Too many variables. The other dive masters were with the group of turistas. We were one short that day, because of various circumstances, no? David was reckless, but a hero. And the Japanese just went plop, plop, plop into the deep. You lose sight of them when ascending." Roberto's intense, remorseful, but there is that big kid's smirk, that odd hint of a smile. And his plop-plop-plop and big hands indicating dropping in a sing-songy kind of way.


"No signs of the lost men? Never found?"


"Who, los japonesas?" He's a bit agitated now.


"Yes, the irresponsible divers from Japan."


"They, yes, no, they have never been found. Maybe a painless death. Narc-ed and loopy and pushed farther into the channel. Unbearable pressure. Ha, maybe made it back to Tokyo."


"Some would like to die that way. You tried everything to stop them. And one of your men . . . nitrogen narcosis."


"Yes, senorita, crippled forever, no. But these incidents, they are noticed on the island. Written down and recorded by las capitalistas. El Jefe, the so-called commissioner of tourism, he's just waiting for one more screw-up from Roberto Hinijosa. And what could I say if it was a fine lady from Spokane, Mrs. Galway, who decided to go into the deep, to experience that realm? Your nirvana? Or some codified suicide pact?" Roberto makes rubbery facial expressions, draws the air in front of him with an outstretched hand, sliding the other hand with the burning joint as if he's playing a trombone. "Nice musica. Really wild music once you go past two twenty-two feet, Mrs. Galway." He plays the imaginary trombone, quickly, big band salsa style as he throws sweat into the room.


"Bettina. Call me Bettina. None of this Mrs. crap. I'm honored that you personally took me to the caves today. Honored. Your reputation on the island -- well, you are called the best diver. The most experienced. And last night, having you in the water, leading us in the current, all the fabulous species out at night, your patience, the incredible current pushing us through our own bubbles, through the phosphorescence, clumsy in full gear, you seem like a ballet dancer. And prepared. I am sure you exude the most confidence of all the divers on Cozumel . . . can handle todo."


Juanito, a redheaded Mexican from Ensenada, tall and skinny and freckly, nods in agreement. "Roberto's got most dive experience. Most dive experience on island. Those three marines . . . he don't like talking about them. We divers not see them as dead guys. Roberto, he has the story . . . the true story, verdad?"





v v v





She watches two maids from the hotel carry plastic bags of shark viscera and body chunks as a rail-thin man - ratty-looking, not outfitted with the requisite hotel staff duds - saws into the remaining carcass of the shark with a series of rapid but efficient machete swats. The maids are pouting, holding hotel towels to their faces as they stumble through the sand to get the heavy bags


of shark guts out of their sight and into an incinerator.


The New Delhi-looking fellow saws and saws


methodically while Victor sleeps in the hammock. As if he's spent all his life in a hammock. His body is crunched up in the sisal and cotton cords of the parrot red and yellow hammock. As if he belongs in the tropics, not in the South Hill hot tub overlooking the valley that leads south to the Palouse.


She hasn't told Victor yet that she is staying on the island for another week, maybe two in the Yucatan. Possibly go to the mainland and climb the big pyramid at Chichen Itza, and maybe take a bus to Palenque. Victor doesn't know that she is planning a deep dive, to the edge, where barracuda school by the hundreds at the precipice, where the corals are 12 feet tall, where all the fairy bass and rare tropical fish zigzag in a world of wavering blue light, where heaven sinks into the dark cataract of the ocean bottom 1,500 feet down, just a quarter mile away from the resort spots -- where Wave Runners and parasails entertain the aggressive tourists.


The gorge or channel, whatever she believes it should be called, is where she wants to go, with Roberto. An extra tank. Deeper than 200 feet. To where the Japanese novice divers floated away. Narced out. Completely loopy. She wants to float near the sheer wall of coral and sponges and schools of tropical fish and watch the battalions of barracuda patrol the black line of sapped light. Sharks and sea turtles. Jew fish and schools of groupers.


Victor's eyelids are fluttering, REM, like jellyfish in a frying pan. Lupita. Lorena. Some girl from the sticks in Antigua, Guatemala, whose body is muscular but a virgin's, whose legs and arms taste of maize and mango juice. Big-spending Americano. Lies about this and that deal in Spokane. Practicing his Spanish. Impressing her with hotel dining and helicopter rides over volcanoes at the edge of rebel-held jungles where black gold and blue gas hold the despots' attention.


And she thinks of those quetzals, the endangered birds with whippet tail feathers that slow them down, make them wonders of the forest, and have turned them into easy prizes for hunters to hawk to hat makers and haberdashers.


Somewhere on the reef, right at the final shelf when all land curls under and draws down toward the channel, there are quetzals prancing over sponges big enough to hold an entire Guatemalan family.





v v v





They're quiet before they reach the spot where the captain will stop the launch and let them drop rapidly to the edge, a quick freefall of lung-crushing, steady kicks until they reach the 200-foot mark. It's an act of faith to be gliding over what appears to be the 1,500-foot channel, and then all of a sudden, a huge shelf appears, with a cacophony of fish dashing in and out of a sponge and coral labyrinth.


Roberto watches her eyes, looks at the light coming in from the ripped sun cover on the boat. Juanito and Mario and a couple of other guys Bettina doesn't know well are in charge of the eight tourists who will dive at 80 feet while Roberto and this crazy woman from Spokane go to the edge.


Victor is probably still in the air, above Oregon, maybe all the way to Seattle where he will work with his GIS and satellite imagery and geological maps of over-thrust belts and infrared images of the pockets of methane so he can lead the charge for another energy conglomerate to exploit more farmers in yet another volcano-festooned valley or black sand beach.


Roberto promises her that they'd go to 230, if Bettina isn't too loopy, too far 'round the bend when they reach 200. He promises her that he'll show her black corals as big as fig trees. Show here a pocket of reef where nurse sharks by the dozens float in timelessness waiting for wrasses and odd purple and pink cleaner shrimp to gouge out the parasites from their gill slits. Black bass as big as Harleys. Jellyfish waves as thick as the fog coming down the Spokane River basin near Nine Mile falls.


She holds the basalt stone, rubs it as the blue world below her captures her. She fiddles with it a few more minutes before putting it away in her buoyancy vest. She imagines the ice dam crushing away, water running down across the Rathdrum Prairie and through the Spokane Valley. Flood velocity of 45 miles an hour. Nine and a half cubic miles per hour rushing from Montana through the valley. Ten times the flow of all the world's rivers combined. She remembers these odd bits after all the chemo.


That dark recess where sharks and whales and sea vents persist, it reminds her of her home, the geological wonder of her Spokane and Grand Coulee, the Columbia River and Pend Oreille. How large geologic time is compared to her paltry 51 years on earth, the miniscule time helping poor families and working with Habitat for Humanity, compared to all the money spent on designer olive oil, salmon jetted from Alaska, wine, vacations in San Francisco, the add-on to their already too big home.


Bettina knows she will get the nerve to tell Roberto the meaning of basalt, about how the great flood carved the final resting place waiting for her. She'll describe to him, after this deep dive, how the light hits the backs of salmon. Spokane, translated as children of the sun -- or spokane, meaning "refractive columns of light that make scales on chum and chinook look like stars under water."


He watches the sun sparkle in her hazel eyes, powerfully alive, etched and cracked from so much living and so much death coming into her at such a young age. She knows he knows -- he is like a beagle that can smell seizures and death coming onto its owner.


"Remember, kick as hard as you can. The sooner we get to our depth, the longer we stay down. Here, the captain knows how to read bubbles. When he returns, they throw over the spare tanks. But only for an emergency. You will feel like you've been down for hours, even though it'll be minutes. An unusual awe of life, no, maybe? You follow me," Roberto says, adding the "plop, plop, plop" while balancing a half-smoked joint between his fingers. "You look at my watch. You look at my depth gauge. You look at my tank pressure. I will do the same for you."


She sees that underwater valley, a gorge encrusted with soft and hard corals, sponges not yet named, strange angler fish with electric currents and toady looking fish with blinking scales that light up at night. She wonders where the meteor crater is that helped crunch the scale of life of the dinosaurs. Somewhere off the Yucatan, that's the theory.


"Now, madam, you can do it the Roberto Hinijosa way, or your way. Acapulco or Spokane."


In a breath, as they pass the joint, and as they finish fiddling with equipment, Roberto takes in a long last toke, zips his mouth mime-style, and then points to his watch, putting up two fingers, meaning "two minutes." Two-minute breath hold. And then he splashes overboard. Bettina, without Victor's lumbering presence, without his judgmental ways, without the secrecy and lies about these clients in Mexico and Guatemala, she feels free, and does the same with the joint, handing it to the weathered captain, and then follows Roberto into the big blue, her breath held tight with the fabric of the jungle and songs from Mayan princesses and the stealth breathing of the jaguar trapped in her lungs.


Plop, plop, plop. Roberto looks back, watches her come toward him, her gracious fin swats gliding her to the coral edge, toward the hematoma that throbs underneath the colorful menagerie of fidgeting fish painted the color of Van Gogh's dreams.





v v v





Si, Bettina, these fellows were powerful swimmers. Said they were in Iraq. Military. Something unusual about them because they knew their way around scuba gear. Navy SEALs, maybe si, but guys who have used diving as part of their job.


It was as if they planned it. A dive on the Caribbean side, where the rough waters are -- strenuous currents, deep, deep ocean east of the island. They had a bundle of cash. Something about them. Well, I have had my time with small-racketeers in Acapulco. I'm not such a pure man.


Powerful swimmers, that's all I can say. And they knew where they were heading. Into the current. It flips around and heads directly to Cuba.


The people on the island think I'm crazy. You think I don't fear your CIA? I have the letter. Made copies. Six months later, just one week before we met, senora, the letter. From the three Americanos. From Cuba. You think I'm crazy? Not so far away, Fidel-land. They were big guys with big vests on and waterproof bags. Who knows what they had arranged. Why go to Cuba? They had money? Diamonds? Why go to Cuba?


Well, with the Japanese right after that, the consulate fellow and his companion - CIA, no doubt - they asked me all the usual questions. I didn't have to tell them the whole story. Caught in currents, bent, whatever, way above their heads as divers, I said. The logical thing is that they went too deep, military know-it-alls, and got over their heads and got in trouble, and I had to bail out at 22O feet. But the CIA fellow, he didn't believe me.


The letter from some fellow signed Bob. A joke, no? From Cuba - the stamp and postmark. No return address. Sent to me here, to the dive shop. Addressed: Dive master Roberto. Funny thing, he signs it Bob. Tells me not to fret, that is the word, "fret." Don't feel responsible that the currents took them. All three were picked up by a shrimp boat. Cubano. Not to feel bad, that they are alive and well. No deaths on my watch as dive master that day six months ago. And asked me to not tell anyone in their government, or in mine. Said they were enjoying the Havana hospitality. The old Hemingway haunts. Jokesters.


So, there it is . . . something out of a Tom Clancy book. And, you, my fine amiga from Spokane, you have it. Why Roberto is paranoid. Why I am now reluctant to go down deep.





v v v





He's smiling, at the edge of the reef, 20 feet below Bettina's 222. She feels the cancer lift out of her, and her head is airy. Martini's law. Warped sense of light. The opiates strumming polytonal voices in her head. Great Dali-esque bending of dials on her gauges.


He's swimming like a child, using his hands and fingers to draw the picture of raindrops. She can hear him playing the trombone as he takes out the regulator's mouthpiece and feigns playing salsa trombone.


Barracuda are diligently schooled off into the clear open water. A lemon shark flashes at the edge of the land mass - a hundred feet below them.


Bettina sees all the fish, like birds, dancing along the rock face, through the tunnels of sponge and light filtered from above. Two hundred and twenty feet is nothing on land. Not as wide as their lot on the South Hill. But here, it's atmospheres of pressure on top of her. And it meshes with the compressed air, and the blood vessels, and her brain.


She laughs at Roberto, knows this man will be there, maybe, in Spokane, at the edge, when the light begins to fade. He will be there running through the pine forest, his dark, muscular body contrasting with the snow. He will be in his swimming trunks, and he will be smiling, letting his stubby fingers play in the air like snow flakes.


Victor will be there, maybe. Hospice people strumming a harp, maybe. The light lifting from the scablands, from the floodplain, and this man, Roberto, who takes her to 230, in this magnificent trench, with the Van Gogh fish actually dripping their colors.


Like the Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, almost extinct because of people like Victor, dragging the air with poisons.


And then, the current will float through the basalt and moraines and kame terraces. Streams rushing out of her as she lets Roberto take her to the pinnacle - the bottom -- where the fish are quetzals.





Publication date: 12/23/04

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