"Anybody who thinks the bay's bottom is closer than the gates of hell will have to revise the map," she proclaimed as she dropped bundles of pescado from her boat.
Of all the fish in the sea, she fed and nurtured the biggest. Slipping this dietary regimen into dark waters, a froth of life rose, causing her skiff to tip. Shoulders to the oars, she turned toward shore. Raw power of tiburon fabulosa scraping her keel, bumping her prow, pressing and banging the thin wood.
Mouthing the words of Psalm sixty four, she knew no harm would come. Across a waterspout of mad activity, she rode - monstrous killer fish thrashing below. Nearing the edge of this wild throng, a gaping hole in the night revealed convex arches of glistening teeth. Twenty-inch ivory spikes, set row upon row, formed a half-circle around the smooth, blunt-nosed face.
Her heart quickened. The Psalm - a prayer of protection - was all remaining between her and eternity. Searching out the fire on the beach, she lined up a beacon. Until now, the sharks had been utterly dependent upon her - but this was too much. This sea creature of unfathomable magnitude. Moonlight glittered off its serpentine length. She hurried to shore.
Ever since she'd come from within the cultivations, she'd spoken with the sharks. They promise to even the score. Voice of their willingness comes through the rite of fire.
Reaching shore, she beaches the boat, steps over the bow and rushes to the blaze. Kneeling, peering into the heart of embers she understands that it is time to add the planks of her skiff.
So, dragging the old boat over wind-blown sand to the intoxicating glow, she uses an axe to break it up. She piles pieces of the useless vessel atop the flickering driftwood. Many sediments have been absorbed in the taint of her old craft. The taint sizzles and sparkles. It gives the heart of fire a rainbow of flickering hue. She strains to grasp the meaning conveyed. Flames climb into the night revealing a spirit of retribution.
Hissing, the taint breaks into a phosphorescence clutching the thwarts of her destroyed scow. It has a great deal to tell: of wealth and need in a province where the small are consumed by the large.
Her name is Estrella and she is the Bruja. She charms the snakes of despair in the tiny port of Armuelles. Lighting fires before her small house of wood at the base of the first green slope to rise out of the bay. She holds ceremonies bewitching the cloven-hoofed beast of hopelessness.
Beyond the broken-down pier of the Fruit Company, cock fights are held. A pastime of Diablo. People would do better spending their time in holy reverence - not betting on fowl wearing inch-long razor spurs. These contests thrill those with no trabajo. With no faith. For so long now the cultivations have been empty of stoop-shouldered peasants.
The Bruja's once-lovely skin was marred by spiders, years back, within the cultivations. She remains severed from social activity, staying close to her house. Often, village folk ask why she has to be so separate from all of Chiriqui province. But common knowledge remembers how as a girl she'd entered into the Academy of San Vicente where the Sisters whispered that she was touched by tongues of the Holy Spirit.
A very perceptive little sorceress who, as charms of femininity bloomed, spoke so much of unseen energies, powers and forces that courting caballeros shied away from. After she had entered the cultivations - coming out draped in scars - the caballeros considered her not simply crazy, but ugly as well. Those vainglorious strapping men who are now being recruited for the new wharf under construction beside the old pier.
Her house on the strand is a refuge against the village. Against the cultivations and the caballeros. Against the consuming evil of the world.
As a barefoot maiden, Estrella had stepped into the lush cultivations. She cherished the rich folds of earth rife with botanical amusements, basking in the sun between the trees.
Chiriqui province boasts of verdant linear beauty as far as the eye will travel. Peasants devote lifetimes growing rows of banana trees for the Land Company.
Estrella's job was to knock nests of spiders out of the tall trees. Using a long pole, she was supposed to kill as many of the eight-legged pests as possible. Nobody likes spiders; her purpose was to keep everybody free of the little nuisances. This jumpy contest commanded the mania of a senorita blessed by a spirit of spunky grit.
She was determined that the lousy critters would not chase her. Never! It was her row of trees - she was in control. It did not belong to the creepy little prickling devils nesting in the towering tops above and below the voluptuous fronds, on the ground or in holes beneath the earth. Offensive vermin! Heebee-jeebies of her wire-drawn nerves pulled hysteria near enough to make her spasmodic. Spiders being parasites, freeloaders - leeches at large. Jittery, lowly, animals living off fruit which wasn't theirs. Spooking the soul of a girl getting mighty ticked.
She went after these cooties with the fury of a spitfire, zigzagging up and down the rows, stabbing at gossamer nests with her great skewer. Herding and pushing, she fought against armies of long-legged spinners. And they high-tailed it.
The sun was setting. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. She'd taken a rightful stand against the delinquent beasts. It was July. Spiders breed in the rainy season of November. In hiding, they incubate until it grows hot. Then, coming into the sunshine, they act as if the world were created with them in mind. Estrella had given them a good run for their money. She showed them who's boss. She'd exhausted herself. Sitting down, leaning against a tree, she conked out to a deep sleep.
Awakening in the dark, she was covered with slithering, slippery, squishy, sucking, stinging arachnids. Upon her cinnamon body bites swelled like pimples of pox.
Pain stricken, her torso compelled itself to roll over five or six times. She lifted herself, brushing off the slithery wooze of living slime. On her knees she crawled to the safety of an irrigation ditch, where she wallowed in the cool muck until the infestation subsided. The host of her body was numb. Punished. Inflamed with fiery agony.
Along the dirty road she carried herself in throbbing darkness. Reaching her house, she stealthily went to the cabinet and opened a jar of ointment. Smearing the greasy stuff with abandon, her keen misery was unendurable. She groped across the room's murk to her mother's hammock, twanging the supporting twine like a string on a big bass cello.
Alarmed, her mother sprang up. Estrella cried that she'd been hurt and needed ice. In a maternal way, the older woman attested that ice is for millionaires and Eskimos. She flopped out of the hammock and struck a match to the oil lamp, focusing concentration on her daughter's swelling welts.
"Oh, my sweet angel! You need ice."
"Mama, I'm burning up."
You're blessed with the tongues of Espirito Santo."
"Ice. Hiello! Hiello! Ice!" Estrella wailed.
Her mother ran to the warehouse of the fruit company and bribed a man into giving up a five pound block of ice. Returning, she found Estrella on the hammock in a dull slumber. Chopping the ice to pieces, she wrapped them in cloth and tried comforting the burning angel. At sunrise she persuaded a local boy, to get one of the Sisters from the Academy of San Vicente.
The Sister, then, standing over the miserably sick girl, decided that only the toil of unending mercy could soothe such fever. Estrella's mother bought lots of cotton and a paring knife. Lighting the lamp, the Sister sliced at the flame and set to work making incisions on the heads of exuding wounds. She cut, squeezed, pinched, poked, pressed and dabbed clean the crevice of every puncture. Whenever the chastening knife penetrated insensibility, Estrella would stir.
Pulling off her veil, the Sister hunched over a thousand sweltering lesions, moistening cotton with the oozing poison. She drained the damage done. Rolling Estrella over, she continued piercing, curing, redressing, sculpting. Around her black shoes formed a pool of blood. Speed, fortitude and the strength of an iron will unlocked the angel's immunity. She glanced at Estrella's mother, praying by the window. Sunset pulled the clouds to western lustre. Estrella would make it. Instructing the mother to continue sponging the poison, she put her veil back where it belonged and returned to San Vicente.
When Estrella had fully recovered, she walked to the Academy and thanked the Sister who'd saved her life. Smiling, the Sister said we must all help each other along the path to everlasting joy; that within the turmoil of land and fruit there is very little good. She was admonished not to be overly concerned about the scars. The scars would fade.
Never again did Estrella set foot within the cultivations. The land company didn't miss her, and eventually the fruit company began spraying legal poison on the bananas - repelling the translucent pests.
From then on the Bruja cursed the companies for their vulgar husbandry of Chiriqui province and the pawning advantage taken of its Indians. With a vow to rectify the situation, she holds a ceremony - to this day - before her blue house.
Nightly, just downwind from where the great new wharf is under construction, the Bruja's fire enchants merry dancers to call forth past, present and future. Pyromania clutches the blackness like a cry of distress.
Salts, minerals and sulfides mingle with dangers from the briney deep wherein three-hundred year old turtles feed upon spawning jellyfish. Wherin the reflection of the surface roams across flanks of the monsters she has fed. The horror she has weaned.
For the longest time, Estrella caught red snapper and wrapped large bundles of it in cloth. She weighted the bundles with scoops full of pebbles. Sinking these bundles of pescado out in the bay, she allowed the sharks to feed; to grow the size of fishing boats. Monsters. Tiburon fabulosa. Serpentine magnitude.
The Psalm of protection now admonishes her to fish only from the fortress of the beach. It is her beach.
She considers the caballeros on thin ropes and shaky scaffolding, working on the great new wharf.
"I wonder who will help them along the path to everlasting joy," she muses.
Skeeze Whitlow sailed in the Merchant Marine. He settled in Arlington, VA, to write. A graduate of Marymount University, he believes life to be a good thing.
Published by permission of the author.