A-B-A

I.

Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra rolled into town during the driest weeks of August, the dog days, when even children stayed indoors because it was too hot to play outside. He had traveled for weeks across the desert, stopping at whatever villages he encountered, but no place had given him reason to stay. Most of his life had transpired that way. His horse, Prudence, who had carried him faithfully for some time, was a breath away from the glue factory. The evening before he arrived, as he sat on a hilltop overlooking the town, the old mare knelt down and refused to get up. The next morning he left her carcass lying beneath the juniper tree and walked into town, hat pulled high away from his face to show he didn’t mean any trouble.

The streets were empty; the morning sun baked everything into a hard-packed crust. A barber sat in the shade outside his shop, one leg crossed over the other. “Well,” he said as the stranger walked by, “you look like you could use a shave and a haircut. What’s your name, traveler?”

“I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.” He wiped sweat from his brow. “You can call me Rodolfo.” His family had a tradition of long names, and he felt a duty to uphold the custom. One of his names had been his grandfather’s, another his father’s, but since he’d never met either of them, he didn’t know which ones were theirs. Manuel, he suspected, was some kind of religious label, given to him as a small child. In fact he guessed that his first four names were all tributes of one kind or another, and that only “Rodolfo” belonged to him and him alone. The barber eyed him as he stood in the street.

“Well, Rodolfo, a shave might cool you off.”

“No, sir, I am calling you dirty. You need a bath. Come into my shop and get a good washing.”

‟I’ve no need of a shave,” Rodolfo said. “What I need is help with my horse. She died last night, and I want to dispose of her properly. I can’t bear the thought of her rotting in the sun.”

“Normally you would talk to the sheriff about it,” the barber said. “But he’s away chasing some outlaw. I doubt anyone would help you in this heat. You might as well come inside and let me trim that mop.”

Rodolfo smiled, tipped his hat, and continued.

He found a shopkeeper willing to loan him a shovel and spent most of the afternoon digging a grave for poor old Prudence. Finally, with the sun low in the sky, he found himself trudging back through town, the shovel hung over his shoulder like a bindle. Dogs emerged from under the porches where they slept all day, and now slunk around Rodolfo’s feet.

“They recognize one of their own,” the barber called as Rodolfo passed. The man sat in the same spot as before. He pinched a cigar between thumb and forefinger.

Rodolfo narrowed his eyes. “Are you calling me a dog?”

“No, sir, I am calling you dirty. You need a bath. Come into my shop and get a good washing.”

Rodolfo had to admit that, after weeks of travel, he gave off a rather unpleasant smell. He climbed the steps, leaned his shovel against the porch railing, and went inside. The shop had only one chair, and a shelf with several pairs of scissors, straight razors, and tonic bottles of all sizes. The barber led Rodolfo straight to the backyard. He filled a tub with water and tossed Rodolfo a bar of soap and a scrub brush.

“That water is cold, but it will do the job. I have an old smock you can wear, instead of those filthy clothes.”

“I have no money,” Rodolfo said.

“You can sweep hair in my shop to make up for it. That way I can relax on the porch and watch the chickens peck the dust.”

Rodolfo saw how things would go. He would enjoy the cool of the barber’s shop for a few days, push a broom around the floor, maybe even earn more than what he owed for the bath. By the end of the week he could get an old horse, or maybe a mule if no one had anything else, and be on his way. He missed Prudence, but it seemed her death wouldn’t actually slow him down.

The barber had three customers the next day, ranch hands who eyed Rodolfo warily but didn’t ask any questions. He was used to such treatment. Men who led settled lives, who had jobs and wives and children, held no faith in the itinerant. Rodolfo swept their shorn hair while the barber sat on the porch smoking his cigars.

Late in the afternoon, a beautiful girl entered the shop. Rodolfo had never seen anyone like her. Black hair shimmered over her shoulders; her skin was brown and smooth, her eyes large and intelligent. The barber grinned as though he knew her—Rodolfo could do nothing but stare.

“Dulzura, what brings you into my shop? Surely you don’t want me to cut off that lovely hair.”

“A message from my father,” the girl said. “To remind you of the card game tonight. You wiped him out last week, and he wants to make sure you’re there so he can get revenge.”

The barber cackled. “Tell that old blowhard I plan on wiping him out again!”

Rodolfo stepped forward. “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

The girl looked down quickly—but he had seen something in her eyes. A faint blush colored her face.

A few workers passed him, and he wanted to ask for a swig from their bottle, but knew how he appeared: a skinny, unshorn man in dirty pants and a second-hand smock.

The barber looked back and forth between them. “Tell your old man I’ll be there. Now you better leave my shop before I take the scissors to your hair and make a wig out of it!” The girl ran out into the street, leaving Rodolfo feeling as though he’d seen a miracle.

The barber didn’t waste any time. He pointed his shears at Rodolfo and said, “You’d better watch yourself. That’s the sheriff’s sister, and neither he nor anyone else in this town would take kindly to you bothering her.”

“It’s a free country, isn’t it?” Rodolfo said.

“Not for a wayfarer like you,” the barber said. “Besides, don’t you meet lots of women on your travels?”

“Not like her,” Rodolfo said.

That evening he carried the shovel over to the shopkeeper’s in hopes of returning it, but the store had closed for the night. The dogs came out again and followed Rodolfo through the town. A few workers passed him, and he wanted to ask for a swig from their bottle, but knew how he appeared: a skinny, unshorn man in dirty pants and a second-hand smock. He would do well to head for the coast as soon as possible.

Rounding a corner, he saw the girl walking ahead of him. She carried a bucket of water and her hips twitched from side to side. Pink and purple clouds stretched overhead as Rodolfo ran to catch up with her. The girl stiffened as she heard his footsteps, as though she already knew who it was, and when he reached her, she smiled up at him with the same blush she’d had earlier that day.

“I never got your name,” Rodolfo panted, though he had heard the barber say it.

“Dulzura.” The word was like music on her tongue.

“Dulzura,” Rodolfo said. “Meet me tonight.”

“I can’t,” the girl said. “Tonight is my father’s card game. I serve the men their whiskey.”

“Surely you can find some way,” Rodolfo said.

The girl scrunched up her face, thinking. Rodolfo fought the urge to wrap her in his arms, smother her with kisses.

“All right,” she said finally. “By the fifth or sixth hand, the men are drunk enough to forget about me. They start joking and arguing. I’ll slip away then. Meet me by the riverbank, beneath the willow.”

Rodolfo nodded and, still toting the shovel, went straight to the river, even though Dulzura wouldn’t arrive for hours. He sat on the hard clay banks and watched the water roll slowly past. Cracks split the earth high on both sides where the river used to flow. Rodolfo imagined it as it once was: a crisp, rushing torrent. It hadn’t rained in the desert in a long time.

A sliver of moon, thin as a hangnail, rose in the east and Rodolfo lay back to watch the stars—but a group of low-hanging clouds rolled in to obscure them. The moon shimmered in and out of sight. Rodolfo chewed on a stalk of grass and waited.

The first ominous rumbles had begun when Dulzura crept beside him, silent as a cat, in her white shift. Rodolfo felt a hand on his arm and there she was, her face wide and brown before his. Moonlight rendered her hair a dark shade of blue. “We can’t stay here,” Rodolfo said. “We’ll get wet.”

“I don’t care,” she breathed, and covered his mouth with hers. A throb shot through him, stronger than anything he’d ever felt. He crushed her to his chest, tore the white cloth away to reveal her young breasts, while her lips pulled and sucked at his own, her breath redolent of whiskey. He realized she was drunk but he didn’t care.

He was clutching her backside, moving her into position, when something kicked him in the head. Dulzura screamed. At first Rodolfo thought something had fallen from the tree, a branch or maybe a rock—but then he saw it again, coming at him, and he reached out and grabbed the thing: a boot.

Dulzura scrambled to her feet. “Father, no!” she cried, and Rodolfo knew exactly what had happened. He twisted the boot to one side, hoping to trip the old man, but it came off in his hand and the bare foot smashed into his face. Rodolfo tasted blood. Then a set of wiry fingers closed around his throat. He heard Dulzura screaming faintly, as though from far away, and wondered why her father hadn’t just shot him. He pried the fingers loose but they came back again. He clawed desperately at the old man’s eyes. The man made a guttural noise like an animal, and in the moonlight something flashed at his waist: a knife. Rodolfo looked around for something to fight with: the shovel.

He swung the broad end as hard as he could. The old man ran right into it, was lifted off his feet, and landed on the cracked earth. He did not move. In the distance, thunder rumbled.

Rodolfo stood wheezing. Blood dripped down his chin. Dulzura knelt beside her father and shook his shoulders. Then she turned to Rodolfo and said, “He’s dead, you bastard, you son of a bitch, he’s dead!”

Rodolfo looked into the man’s face. A red hole had replaced his left eye: Rodolfo had scratched his eye out. The shovel hadn’t left any marks, but the old man lay at an awkward angle and his one good eye did not blink. “How could that have killed him?” he said. “Just one hit….”

Dulzura covered herself with the white shift. “Murderer! I’ll see you pay for this!” She ran up the bank, away from the river, wailing “Murderer!” over and over.

“What was I supposed to do?” Rodolfo said. “Let him kill me?”

“He’s an old man!” Dulzura called over her shoulder. “You could have subdued him….” And then she was gone.

Rodolfo turned in circles. He didn’t have much time. Dulzura would sprint into town, gather all the men—the barber, the shopkeeper, the ranch hands—and they would hang poor Rodolfo before the sun rose. Well, he wouldn’t just give up. He had gotten out of scrapes before. He slid down the embankment, into the slow-moving water, and waded across. By the time he climbed up the other side, the heavens had opened up. The river became a churning, frothing monster, unrecognizable and uncrossable. He ran blindly through the rain. Lightning blasted the ground around him. The storm moved forward, washing away his tracks, and Rodolfo didn’t look back.

II.

From the precipice, the valley resembled a long green knife wedged into the earth. Broad leaves waved from stalks. Flowering plants abounded. Such a place could not be uninhabited. Rodolfo descended without knowing what to expect.

As he made his way down the path, he eyed clumps of bananas, nectarines, and other, unrecognizable fruits—but resisted the urge to pluck them. He didn’t yet know whose land he was on.

“Names are arbitrary,” the boy said. “Didn’t you know?” He gave Rodolfo an incredulous look. “You should have known that by now.”

A naked boy, dark as a plum, appeared in front of him. Rodolfo stopped. The boy was about ten years old, and quite unashamed of his nudity—so much so that Rodolfo’s own clothes felt onerous and cumbersome upon him. He looked Rodolfo up and down. “Who are you?”

“I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

“What a name!”

“Well,” Rodolfo said, “what is your name?”

“Patch,” the boy said.

“And how did you earn this name? You’re not wearing any patch that I can see.”

“Names are arbitrary,” the boy said. “Didn’t you know?” He gave Rodolfo an incredulous look. “You should have known that by now.”

“Listen, Patch,” Rodolfo said. “I’ve traveled a long way and I’m hungry. Whose bananas are these? I don’t want to be accused of theft if I take one.”

“You’re a strange one! The bananas are nobody’s.” With that, the boy ran away down the path. But his answer made Rodolfo uneasy and, despite his hunger, he left the fruit untouched.

As he walked he became aware of a steady noise, like a faraway train, that had been there the whole time. It grew louder and louder, until Rodolfo turned a corner and saw, a hundred feet below, a waterfall cascading into a clear pool, and people everywhere—naked, swimming, basking on the flat rocks. The little boy had already scampered down the path and dived into the water. He splashed around with some other children and seemed to have no intention, as Rodolfo had feared, of alerting the others to his presence.

By the time Rodolfo climbed down, the people had seen him and gathered around to ask questions. Their eyes were bright and quick. No one, from the infants to the elderly, wore a stitch of clothing. Rodolfo addressed them all: “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra. You may call me Rodolfo. I am a traveler, without money—without anything.”

A man clasped his hand. “You must be hungry. Take whatever fruit you like. It grows faster than we can pluck it.”

“Where do you come from?” a woman asked.

“I don’t come from anywhere.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Everyone comes from somewhere.”

“Not me,” Rodolfo said.

The little boy, Patch, reappeared. “Why do you wear those old clothes? Aren’t you hot?”

Rodolfo ignored him, turning to the fellow who had taken his hand. “How is it that such a place exists in the desert? Have I stumbled into the realm of fairies?”

The man laughed. “We are men and women, I assure you. Come rest in the shade. And young Patch is right—unburden yourself of those useless clothes. There is no modesty here.”

The people began turning away, bored already by the newcomer. Rodolfo reluctantly stripped off his pants and smock, but wasn’t sure where to put them. Their mere presence seemed to sully this green place. Finally he placed them under a palm tree and walked to the water’s edge. The pool was frightfully deep but clear all the way to the bottom: children sat down there, blowing bubbles. Rodolfo hadn’t bathed in weeks, since the barber’s tub in that dusty town, and found the water exhilarating. He swam for nearly an hour before climbing out and sunning himself on a grassy spot. He ate fruit until his belly hurt. Then he watched the people as they frolicked like birds.

One of the females approached him. Like Patch, she was plum-dark; her wet hair fell over her breasts; her limbs were long and lean, her eyes almond-shaped and unknowable. Rodolfo tried to hide his body’s reaction by rolling onto his side. But such a thing, in these circumstances, couldn’t be hidden.

“Why are you hiding over here?” the girl said. “You’re the new stranger, aren’t you?”

“I’m not hiding. I’m tired from my travels, that’s all.”

The girl squatted before him. “I know what you need.” Grabbing his hips, she rolled him onto his back and, with the help of a guiding hand, lowered herself onto him. Rodolfo gasped. Every encounter he’d ever had with a woman had been clandestine: rolling around in a hayloft somewhere, meeting by night, whispering in an absent husband’s bed. And they always clung to him, closed their eyes, cried out as though they were being taken away to another planet. But this woman kept her eyes open. “Do you like this?” she asked, as Rodolfo blinked up at her.

Towards the end, the girl gasped and said, “Mmmm,” but otherwise showed no reaction. She sat on Rodolfo until he slid out of her on his own. Then she lay beside him, reached for a branch overhead, and pulled down some engorged purple fruit Rodolfo had never seen before. She tore it in half and offered him a slice, which he devoured whole.

He knew that he could wake up at any moment, back in the desert, belly grumbling, dawn cracking its glaring eye over the horizon to start a new day of sweat and thirst and wondering if he’d find shelter before the vultures began circling. He fell asleep with those thoughts. But when he woke, he was still on the cool grass. Stars twinkled overhead. Someone was beating a drum.

“Come on,” the girl said. She took his hands and led him to a clearing, where everyone sat around a fire. An old man with a long beard pounded a drum. They were holding some kind of ceremony. The girl whispered, “We almost missed Lurid.”

“Lurid?”

“The storyteller,” the girl said.

The old man let one final drumbeat hang in the air before he started to talk. His voice was sonorous, mesmerizing. His hands moved as he spoke. “Once upon a time,” he said. “Once upon a time, there was a man….”

…a wanderer who roamed from town to town, village to village, forever seeking something he couldn’t name. He ate what he could find and slept where he fell. And then one day, in a desert town, he happened upon a girl named Sweetness. When the traveler saw her, something inside him changed. He knew it was time to stop—time to settle down. But the girl’s father was a jealous old hound, and didn’t want anyone to possess his daughter—least of all some wayfarer whom no one knew and no one trusted. The traveler burned for her badly—and you know how such feelings can drive a person crazy, how awful it is to have to suppress them. That’s why we live in freedom here in the valley: so things like this won’t happen. For what happened to our traveling hero can be blamed neither on him nor on his beloved Sweetness, but only on the trickeries of the universe—only on that unjust and capricious arbiter, Fate. One summer night, these two lovers, unable to contain their passions any longer, met by the riverbank. But the girl’s father lay in wait. What were his motives? How did he know of his daughter’s secret rendezvous? That is not for us to know. What matters, dear friends, is that the father attacked, and our hero fought back, and in his passion he killed the old man. The girl, poor Sweetness, ran terrified from the scene, leaving our hero to flee once more into the desert. His troubles, sadly, had only just begun….

The old man pounded the drum once, a signal that the story was over, and people began rustling. The girl yawned and stretched, ready to bed down for the night. But Rodolfo was terrified.

He approached the old man. “Where did you learn that story?”

The man’s shrugged. “From nowhere. From the sky. From my heart.”

“Tell me the end of it,” Rodolfo said. “I have to know what happens.”

“I don’t know, myself,” the old man said. “When I sit down tomorrow, the rest of it will arrive. You’ll have to wait until then. You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“I think I’m leaving soon,” Rodolfo said.

A woman tugged on his arm and asked if he would stay with her for the night. His body gave a sharp, visceral response, but the old man’s story had spooked him. He couldn’t stay here. He had to move on.

III.

When Rodolfo emerged from the valley into the red desert dawn, they were already waiting for him. A dozen men on horses, with shotguns. He recognized the barber, the shopkeeper, the ranch hands. In front sat a man with slits for eyes and shiny black hair, worn proud like an Indian’s. A sheriff’s star glittered over his breast. Rodolfo knew he was cornered.

He was silent, intelligent, the sort of man who frightened Rodolfo the most, because he managed to straddle the lives of the itinerant and the domestic.

As the horses circled him, he considered his options. He could run back down the valley and try to hide. But that would only delay the inevitable—and it would bring these gun-toting manhunters into direct contact with the paradise below. The people down there had no weapons. If they tried to defend Rodolfo, the posse would wipe them out. His conscience wouldn’t allow it.

Running across the open desert would be futile. He’d be shot down before he ran ten paces. As for fighting his way out—well, he’d never been a fighter. And he was unarmed.

He considered lying, insisting the sheriff had tracked the wrong man—but then the barber spoke up: “Yes, that’s him. He’s wearing my old smock.” At this, a sort of pride spiked up in Rodolfo. If asked, he could never deny his own name.

He stood with raised arms in the ring of horses. An air of authority pulsated from Dulzura’s brother, the sheriff. Rodolfo knew him immediately as a man of action. The ranch hands, on the contrary, were ignorant, uncomplicated men. Rodolfo had seen their type countless times. They held jobs and wives and they did not ask questions. But this sheriff was a different sort. He was silent, intelligent, the sort of man who frightened Rodolfo the most, because he managed to straddle the lives of the itinerant and the domestic. He used the town as his base, and he defended it with his life, but those very acts of defense led him to journey far from it, and learn about the world, and contemplate things during his lonely hours on horseback, just as Rodolfo had done all these years. Rodolfo saw all of this in a moment. They were alike in many ways, and Rodolfo clung desperately to this idea of solidarity—perhaps it could save his life.

“It is you, then?” the sheriff said, his voice scarcely more than a whisper, the noise of an eagle’s wings flapping far above the cracked earth. “Make your last action honorable, and own up to your name.”

Rodolfo lowered his arms and raised his chin. “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

“You raped my sister,” the sheriff said. “You murdered my father.”

“No, sir,” Rodolfo said. “I have never taken a woman by force. Your sister came to me, breathless, in the night. Your father I killed in self-defense.”

The sheriff held his shotgun loosely across his saddle. His face was windswept, inscrutable. For the briefest of moments, Rodolfo felt a connection. He knew the man believed him.

“He was an old man,” the sheriff said finally. “You might have subdued him.”

“It was an accident,” Rodolfo said. “I swung with the shovel—I didn’t mean to kill him.”

“With my stolen shovel,” the shopkeeper said.

Rodolfo didn’t bother to reply. The time for arguments had passed.

The sheriff sighed. “The problem with you wayfarers is you have no responsibility. You drift through life seeking only pleasure. Life is not pleasure. Life is task.” He leveled his shotgun with one hand.

The barber looked uneasy. “Wait,” he said. “Is it right to just execute him here? We should bind him, carry him until we find a tree, do things the proper way. He swept hair in my shop for a day, after all.”

“They say unburied souls are doomed to drift through eternity,” the sheriff said. “But this man craves such a fate. To give him a proper execution, a proper burial, would be the worst kind of punishment. He rejected domesticity at every turn. He abandoned it, decidedly, in favor of a wandering existence. If we bury him, we confine him.” The sheriff spat. “I sympathize with you, stranger. Which rules the universe—order or caprice? Your death here may represent both. May you wander forever, without consequence.”

A loud bang roared forth from the shotgun, and at the same moment Rodolfo found himself lifted off his feet, hurled onto his back, just as Dulzura’s father had been. He tried to sit up but couldn’t. He spat blood into the sand. The horses clopped away, and Rodolfo looked up at the rising sun, the clear white sky, as the life drained out of him. He felt on the verge of something, some revelation, but his thoughts mingled, bled into one another, so that he couldn’t distinguish anything. And then he was walking, walking steadily across the desert, across the plains, away from this valley, away from any place, walking forever.

N. T. Brown lives in Orlando, FL, with his dog, Seven, and his cat, Mrs. Mia Wallace.