Sky Over El Nido: Stories
Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction

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Sky Over El Nido

A complete short story from
C.M. Mayo's Sky Over El Nido

The Jaguarundi

I WAS SITTING on Manette's faded chintz sofa when the jaguarundi rubbed its flank against my calf. I paid it no notice, thinking it was a house cat. Later, when I was leaving, I saw it curled up atop one of Uwe's music boxes. Its head was as long and flat as a weasel's, and its coat was a dusty black, like an otter's. "That's my jaguarundi," Manette said as she passed me my umbrella. It flicked open its eyes at the sound of her voice. They were larger than a cat's, coffee-colored with round pupils.

"Uwe bought her for me from a rancher in Chiapas," Manette was saying. "I'm painting her into my 'jungle pastiche'. Uwe's written a poem about her, 'Gibt es einen Zoo in der Nähe?'"

"You know I can't understand a word of German," I said and I kissed her on the mouth.

This was in Coyoacán, an old neighborhood of Mexico City. This was 1982, when we all had dollars in the Mexican banks and we all felt rich, or rich enough anyway. Uwe was importing music boxes from Austria and Denmark, brought in on some politician's private plane to avoid paying duty. Manette had begun to sell her jungle paintings through a gallery in the Zona Rosa. I had most of my money parked with my father's stockbroker in New York; in Mexico I lived simply, in work shirts and bluejeans, no furniture, a portable typewriter. If I needed a tie, I didn't go.

I began to go to Manette's house nearly every afternoon. We drank shot glasses of prickly pear brandy, or tequila with a spritz of lime; once, we drank a finger of Uwe's peppermint schnapps and smoked a joint. Manette's jaguarundi lolled on the apricot kilim at our feet, it's purr deep and rough. The rains started by about four, and they made the jaguarundi restless. It would leap from music box to music box, to the ledge over the sofa where it set Uwe's Zapotecan bowls wobbling and spinning. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of its tail, much longer, more slender than a cat's, among the forest of antique silver frames on the baby grand piano. When it came near the sofa again, Manette would rake her hand along its back, then lightly, with one finger, along its tail.

"Precious," she always said.

The garden was chill and lush. Manette had hung windchimes made of abalone shells from the eaves, and it is this that I remember, more than her voice, although that too was soft, and flute-like. And I remember the faint smell of ferns and of wet geraniums, the cool lightness of her eiderdown duvet thrown over my back; teak, waxed rosewood, and the jaguarundi that smelled like Manette, tart and sugary, like bramble, or hazelnuts.

Uwe was German. There were a lot of Germans in Mexico, people whose great grandfathers had confused Galveston with Veracruz, most of them engineers, or chicken farmers, or accountants. Uwe wrote poetry and sold music boxes. I met him a few weeks after I'd begun to see Manette, at one of his and Manette's Thursday night 'open houses'.

"So you are a writer," he said. He wasn't really looking at me; he was watching Manette. She had the jaguarundi in her arms and was going around the room, allowing people to pet it. Somehow, Uwe got it out of me that I had lived in Nairobi, and Fez, and a village of exactly seven souls and a flock of bandylegged sheep on the northwest coast of Skye, and that I had published two chapbooks of poetry, and recently, a collection of travel essays I'd written for a Canadian magazine.

"You are busy, busy, busy," Uwe said. He had jet black hair, dyed I suspected, and a broken nose. "For you," he said, taking a swallow of his cognac, "'The Flight of the Bumble Bee'." He led me to a dark corner in the foyer. Next to the hat stand was a stone pedestal, and on it, an oval-shaped box made of mahogany and polished burlwood; there was a bee the size of my hand on each of its sides, inlaid with obisidian and yellow jade. Uwe wound it up with an iron key.

"I travel light," I laughed. "I don't have a car, I don't even own a tie."

"Does not matter," he said. He knew who my father was. "If you can have a beautiful thing, why not have it?"

The music sounded like the abalone shell chimes in a storm.

"Rimsky-Korsakoff," he said, stroking his chin and smiling tightly, as if in ecstacy. "I will give you a good price."

"No thanks," I said. "But thanks."

"Uwe's a lousy poet," Manette told me once. We had stepped out of the shower, and towelled each other off. She was pulling a tortoise-shell comb through her waist-length blonde hair. "Do you know, he's never published anything?" she said fiercely. "Uwe only knows how to collect things. Things and people."

I had seen the music boxes, the ones Uwe kept for himself; the antique beer steins lined up on a shelf near the diningroom ceiling, the Zapotecan bowls, the filigreed silver frames, black and white photographs, a basketful of fingernail-sized gold coins stamped with the profile of the Archduke Maximilian.

"God," she said, her eyes glistening. "Even here, in the bathroom." She tapped her comb against the glass on a print. "Uxmál," she said with disgust. She pointed to the print next to the sink. "That one's Chichén." They covered the walls, Sayíl, Labná, Dzibilichaltun, Mayan ruins under a hand-colored dawn.

She'd slicked her hair into a rope and was leaning forward, twisting the towel around her head. When she stood up, it was if she had on a fantastic headdress. Water drops sparkled in the wells of her collarbone.

"Tortoise-shell combs!" she said, grabbing a fistful from a Talavera bowl. "Tin soldiers, politicians, Agustín Lara recordings, poets -"

I ran my hands down her shoulderblades and buried my face in her neck.

I thought I would see another jaguarundi. But I never have, not once in my life.

Manette never finished what she called her 'jungle pastiche' painting. Near the end of the rainy season the president gave a speech everyone who had a television watched. I didn't have a television, but Manette called me that night to tell me that the president had begun to shout, towards the end, about plunder, conspiracies; tears welled in his eyes, he shook his fist at the cameras. He said he would nationalize the banks, and no one was allowed to change pesos for dollars, or dollars for pesos. Uwe hurled one of his beer steins at the screen. The beer stein had been worth a lot of money, Manette said, enough to buy a small car.

Uwe had decided they would go to Vienna, for several months.

"Uwe's taking me to the operas," she mumbled, and began to cry.

"Don't forget your opera glasses," I said.

"Look in on my jaguarundi," she said.

I hung up on her.

I couldn't work for days. I sat on the mattress in my bare apartment, balancing the typewriter on my knees. I drank weak té de tila, I smoked stale Marlboros and chewed my nails. I tried to finish a travel piece about the Pacific Coast, but instead I wrote a series of poems I titled "Manette in the Morning", because, I realized, I had never seen her in the morning. Later, when I left Mexico, I would tear them to shreds and flush them down the toilet.

I toured every single church and museum in the city limits, I walked through the Alameda, and Chapultepec Park, looking each woman I saw full in the face. I went to the Chapultepec zoo and threw a hotdog to the tiger. I took the metro to Coyoacán, thinking I might look in on the jaguarundi, but my feet wouldn't take me to Manette's cobblestone lane. I kept walking down Francisco Sosa, past Los Geránios, through the plaza to El Parnaso where I bought a chapbook by a Mexican poet I'd met on one of those Thursday nights, a short mousy-haired woman I didn't really respect. I stared at her words as I drank a coffee I didn't really want. I left the book face down next to the tip.

Then, I did look in on the jaguarundi. The maid let me in, saying she'd been expecting me. She asked me if I wanted a brandy, or a shotglass of tequila? I asked where the jaguarundi was, and she clapped her hands and called its name. But it didn't come.

"It is sad," she said, "now that Señora Manette is gone." Her red and white checked apron was soiled. "It broke one of Señor Uwe's Zapotecan bowls. I had to punish it." She stared at the floor and twisted her braid.

We began to search for the jaguarundi, behind the chintz sofa, around the music boxes, behind the plumería in clay pots painted with the faces of the sun and moon. And in the laundry patio, the garden, the diningroom. I went upstairs, to Manette's and Uwe's bedroom. The drapes were closed and Manette's jewelry box was gone, but everything else was the same. There were dusky black hairs shed all over the eiderdown duvet, and a small oval indentation where the jaguarundi had slept on her pillow. I could hear the maid downstairs, still clapping her hands and calling for it. I opened the drapes, and pushed out the window. The abalone shells tinkled in the breeze.

Manette's closet door was ajar. I walked in, and I thought I might sink to my knees, drown in the smell of laundered cotton, grassy linen, the oranges she'd stuck with cloves. I grabbed an armful of her blouses and held them to my cheek. The jaguarundi began to purr and to weave between my legs.

It let me pick it up and carry it downstairs to the sofa. I sat with it on my lap for awhile, nuzzling it, burying my face in its scruff. Everything was the same, as if Manette and Uwe might be coming home for cocktails, any minute. I poured myself a schnapps and wound up the nearest music box, a large dust-covered chest. It played too slowly, missing the A and the F sharp, "Dance des Mirlitons", from The Nut Cracker Suite. I sat on the sofa for a long time, smoothing the jaguarundi's fur with the flat of my hand, listening for the faint rush of the city's arteries, to the jaguarundi's shallow breath and my own. When I got up to leave, the jaguarundi cocked its head, staring at me.

Outside, the sun was a harsh white, everything was dry.

The maid had been giving the jaguarundi cat food and it looked a little thin. So I returned the next afternoon with a fish wrapped in butcher paper. The jaguarundi came dashing up to me when I called it from the foyer, and it put its front paws on my knees, sniffing for the fish. I could feel its claws through my bluejeans, and its eyes shone, even in the dim.

I stood in the kitchen, watching the maid fry the fish in a teaspoon of corn oil, then pick the bones out, then spoon it into the jaguarundi's dish on the tile floor.

"This fish is very expensive," the maid said, wiping her hands on her apron.

"Yes," I said.

I went home and wrote a poem about brambles and hazelnuts, bumble bees, the gossamer blue cast to the winter morning. I started to write Manette a letter, something about the economic recovery program the new president called the 'PIRE'. "Your maid would call it the 'pyre'," I wrote. Ha ha. I crumpled that one up and tossed it in the trash. I started another letter, about how Francisco Sosa, the main street in Coyoacán, had been cleaned up now that the president's family had their house there, near the bridge over the river and the terracotta-colored sixteenth century chapel. Armed soldiers patrolled the street outside, looking bored, smoking cigarettes. Inflation was more than two hundred percent, I wrote her in another letter. There was no sugar, or flour in the supermarket. There were campesinos, I told her on the back of a postcard, (a garish view of Acapulco by night), who came to the city and drank gasoline and then lit a match and breathed fire. The people in their cars at stoplights gave them coins. I saw this from the window of a public bus. I thought I might go to Chang Mai after Christmas, I wrote, or Marrakesh, or Cairo.

I kept the letters I wrote to Manette in my jacket pocket; the poems I wrote about her, by my bedside table. All through that winter, I came to see the jaguarundi in the afternoons; yet somehow, I always forgot to ask the maid for their address.

Manette had left her paints, her brushes, canvases, everything. I couldn't imagine what she was doing in Vienna. Manette didn't read much, or watch television. The opera didn't go on all day. I'd been to Vienna, but even still I imagined it as a closed, black damp place, where old people huddled in unheated apartments, playing violoncellos.

Her studio was in a padlocked shed at the back of the garden, overgrown with ragged bougainvillea. Through a tiny window I could see the corner of her 'jungle pastiche' painting, where she had left it on the easle. Pinned on the walls were pencil sketches of the jaguarundi: its head, from different angles, with its eyes shut, opened, its ears sleek against its skull; one hind leg, its rosebud nose, lolling on its back, pouncing on a shard of pottery. With the dry season though, the bougainvillea blossomed and spread, purple, brilliant orange, and the small room darkened.

I drank all the schnapps, and most of the tequila. I smoked the marijuana I found stashed in the bathroom, and I wound up and listened to every single music box. I shuffled through Uwe's black and white photographs: of Indian women in headdresses made of live iguanas; the volcanoes ringed with clouds, like scarves; a snapshot of B. Traven in his library on the Calle Mississippi.

I brought the jaguarundi tuna, and huachinango and once, a bit of catnip a friend drove down from Laredo. Soon I didn't have to clap, or to call for the jaguarundi; it was waiting for me in the shadows of the foyer, at the same hour every afternoon. After it ate, the jaguarundi would pad into the living room and jump up to lie next to me on the sofa. It would lick its whiskers, or the pads of its paws; it would purr loudly, and flick its tail with contentment. Sometimes the jaguarundi rubbed its chin against my leg, asking me to tickle its ears.

The days passed like this, one after the other, and another. I wrote an article about mariachis for the Canadian magazine, and a sort of philosophical essay on the floating gardens at Xochimilco. I reviewed the galleys for another chapbook. I read travel guides, to India, North Africa; I considered living in a settlement on the edge of Hudson Bay. And then the rainy season began again, suddenly, with a violent downpour.

"I am sitting in your living room," I scribbled to Manette. I crumpled the paper in my fist.

"I was fucking your wife," I wrote to Uwe.

I asked the maid for their address.

The next afternoon, I brought the jaguarundi a sting ray. The maid wrinkled her nose at it, but I told her not to worry, the meat was like tuna only with a slightly sharper, salty taste. Go ahead and boil it, I said, and I went into the living room. I opened the liquor cabinet, and lined up what was left: a finger of tequila, anise liqueur, Campari, gin, a shot of the prickly pear brandy. I poured them all into a tumbler. The liquor filled a little more than half the glass. The mixture was a reddish brown, like coagulated blood. I drank it all. Then I sat on the sofa, waiting for the room to fall apart.

When the jaguarundi jumped up, I skidded my hand along its back. I began to kiss it on the scruff, between its eyes, and I hugged it until it cried, until it clawed at me, spat at me and hissed. It wriggled away, finally and I staggered into the bathroom and threw up in the toilet.

"You are singing Oaxaca?" the maid shouted through the bathroom door. Maids would speak this way to foreigners. "You ate some sting ray?"

"No!" I shouted, my knuckles white on the edge of the toilet bowl. "I'll be all right," I said. I lost my balance and fell to the floor.

The light was a pale rosy grey when I woke up, with a sour taste in my mouth, and a blinding headache. I touched my fingertips to my face: it was crusted with fresh scabs. There was a musty smell, from the eiderdown duvet, I realized, on Manette's bed. I heard the jaguarundi's raspy purr: it was curled at the foot of the bed, watching me carefully. When I sat up, it scampered into the closet, its long tail swishing behind it.

I remembered then that I hadn't yet affixed the postage to those letters. I clapped my hands, once, weakly. I sank back into the pillow, and slept until late afternoon.

When I left the clouds were a fretwork, spent and drifting. The cobblestones were slick and the air smelled of earth, and gasoline.

Some days later, I came back with a pair of plastic earrings for the maid, and a huachinango.

"Ah," the maid said, her eyes very round, as she took the packages. She had on a clean apron. I asked for the jaguarundi. She called out its name, but the jaguarundi did not come. She shrugged. "Would you like a tequila?" she asked.

"But aren't we out of liquor?" I tried to approximate a sheepish look. I had my hands in my pockets.

"Oh," she murmured. She knit her brow, as if she suddenly recognized something large and obvious. She crossed her arms over her chest. "The Señor Uwe is home," she blurted. She seemed to intuit what she needed to say from my expression. "He went to the store," she said, "to buy lightbulbs."

"Thank you," I said, and I left.

The next day, I came home to find an enormous canvas wrapped in brown paper stood up against my bed. It was Manette's unfinished 'jungle pastiche'. Henri Rousseau's lion peeped out from the long grasses; there were mina birds, and banana trees, vermillion hawaiianas, and a spider monkey, swinging from a vine. Picasso's harlequin sprawled in the ferns, smoking a joint. Manette had painted me and the Venus de Milo waltzing through a blank sky.

I looked for the jaguarundi; she said she'd painted it in, but I couldn't find it.

The next day, I flew to Cairo with my dufflebag and my typewriter. I left the landlady my styrofoam coffee cups, a half empty box of laundry detergent, and the painting. I was going to write a series of articles about the River Nile, but I ended up doing something on bellydancers, and the oud, and Anwar Sadat's novel. I ended up spending a winter in Alexandria, writing sonnets; then a couple of years in Tangiers in an apartment behind the souk, with a view of the straights, the swallows, the biscuit-white shores of Spain.

I didn't think much about Mexico. It seemed exotic, the further away I was from it, like Cairo itself, the wildly colored turbans the women wore in Nairobi, like an emerald twilight. Every once in awhile, The International Herald Tribune would print a few column inches about Mexico, with a photograph of a high-rise beach hotel, or a woman picking through a mountain of garbage. I read that there were earthquakes in Mexico City, in 1985. I was worried, and I considered calling, but then I met someone on a plane who told me most of the damage was in the Colonia Centro, where cheap hotels and rotting palaces and vecindades were built over the ancient lake bed. The earthquakes hadn't affected Coyoacán, which was on volcanic rock. The price of crude oil fell, drastically, the president was booed and heckled at the World Cup Soccer matches. The fans trashed the Sanborn's where I used to go to buy American magazines. A team of fresh-faced economists was renegotiating the foreign debt.

I suppose I could say the flat headed North African cats reminded me of the jaguarundi, or that I had some kind of epiphany when I went out to see, dutifully (but without a camera), the Sphinx. Or that I once spent an afternoon in a village near Luxor drinking cheap white wine with a Dutch girl who had a laugh, and hair, exactly like Manette's. Or that I went with her to her hotel room and ran my hands down her shoulderblades, drew my fingers along the rim of her collarbone, like a fan of feathers skimming smooth bark. And that afterwards, I listened to her tell me about Uxmál and Chichén, as if I'd never been there, I'd never heard of them, and everything she said, she did, even the way she smelled, was new, and surprising.

I don't know if I could say all that; if it would be true, really.

I did see Manette again, once, briefly. I met her for breakfast at a Sanborn's near my hotel in the Colonia Centro. This was in 1992, when most of the earthquake damage had been repaired, although there were still a few empty lots here and there, boarded up with plywood. Another president was privatizing the banks; everyone was talking about a free trade agreement with the U.S. and Canada. The stock market had sailed up like a skyrocket, and my father had been calling me, telling me I should buy Telmex, Cifra, Cemex.

She wore a red suit that looked tight at the hips. Her hair was cut short, pulled back with a plastic headband. No, she hadn't painted anything in ages, there wasn't room in her apartment. Uwe had gone back to his first wife in Vienna. She had thought about moving to Houston, she said, but she was offered a job translating reports for the American Chamber of Commerce. It was fun, she said. It was nearby.

We ate hotcakes, and drank coffee. She took out her compact and put on her lipstick. I lit a Marlboro. She'd been doing tai chi, on Saturdays, at the Casa de Cultura in Coyoacán. She'd been going to the 'Beverly Hills Workout' at the Plaza Inn mall. The jaguarundi was in the zoo.

We split the bill. When I pushed back my chair, she touched my hand.

"Where will you be going?" she said. She had fine lines around her eyes now.

"Chiapas," I said.

"You are?" Her voice was very soft. "Will you be back?"

"I don't know," I said.

It crossed my mind, as we said goodbye in the street, that she expected me to kiss her. But she was wearing heavy makeup, and I didn't want to smudge it.

I was back in Mexico City the following week, and I went, to pass a few hours before my plane left, for old time's sake, or for some reason I don't really want to admit to myself, to the Chapultepec Zoo. I bought a hotdog and an orange soda and I walked along the winding paths shaded by eucalyptus and ancient ahuehuetes. The tiger I had fed so many years ago had died. The panda was on loan to a zoo in Washington D.C., a little plaque said. I saw a gorilla with its tiny baby, a family of gibbons, a frantic chinchilla in a small cage. The zoo was nearly empty, but for a noisy group of schoolchildren in their navy blue uniforms. An old man sat on a bench, tossing popcorn to the pigeons.

I found the jaguarundi in a glassed-in cage, in a pavilion near the exit. It was sleeping, its head in its paws. Its fur was speckled with white. It looked thin. The cage had a backdrop painted to look like a jungle, with sloppy olive green banana trees and a cloudless, turquoise sky. I clapped my hands, but the jaguarundi didn't move. Its food dish was covered with flies. I clapped my hands again, louder this time, and its eyes flicked open. The jaguarundi looked at me without moving. Then it yawned, and rolled over on its side.

I thought I might tap on the glass, call out its name. But for the life of me, I couldn't remember what it was.