On the porches the Venezuelans played salsa while it rained. Outside it was dark and the air was heavy, and the earth thick with loam and steam, but on the porches illuminated with lanterns and candles and flashlights it was bright and whirling, quick, flexible music floating from each house.
Around the backsides of the clapboard houses the jungle was creeping in, trying to grab each house around the waist as if for a dance, intent on consuming the village. But the people beat it back each day, a refusal to dance.
They said no, we’ll dance on our own. But the jungle insisted, and kept trying.
The old man in the ill-fitting poncho walked up to each house, asking in a jumbled accent, “Hola, buenos noches, has visto mi cajita?”
Have you seen my little box?
“Probablemente, senor,” they’d answer. “What does it look like?”
And he would say, “It is black, and square, and very heavy, and very small, like this,” and show them with his hands.
“No senor,” the lead player would often reply. “We will tell you if we do.”
“Gracias,” the man replied, and walked to the next house, hair streaming with rain. Behind him they kept playing, and he could hear titters. Quietly, like mice, but still titters. They never said anything to his face.
His head was bald and wrinkled, and his scruffy chin was covered in a thin blanket of white. His knees shook when he took a step.
One evening, after searching all day, the man walked to the last house in the village of Aldeia. It was small and dark, with yellow paint on the windowsills. It was a beautiful color, bright and fresh, but it had specks of green in it, and he could tell the paint was made from jungle plants.
He knocked on the door and a wizened old lady answered it. Her hair was cut close to her scalp and decorated with jangling beads and tiny glass eyeballs, and her chocolate-colored skin was wrinkled yet youthful.
“Ah,” he said, and took a step back.
The woman grinned. “Not expecting me, huh, Dreley?”
Dreley shook his head. “I didn’t know you lived here, Luche.”
“Well, I do. I have, for awhile.”
He shifted onto his left foot. “Do you—I guess, do you like it here?”
She moved forward and sat on the stoop, looking up at him and then around at the small thrumming village. “Yeah, I do. Yeah, Dreley. I love the music here, and the people, and the stories they tell, and the jungle, and all the rain.”
He sat next to her, gingerly. “How long have you lived here?”
She laughed, her teeth pearly white and jagged. “Since you left me.”
“Do you want tea? I’ve heard you’ve been asking around for a cajita, now, and I figure I think better over tea.”
He followed her inside. It was hot and musty inside, and the celing was draped with ropes of herbs and beads, stalactites of glass eyes all woven together with rosemary and tawari and wasai plant dangling from the mossy ceiling. There was no light, only a dimly guttering candle on the floor next to the bed.
The floor seemed bare in comparison. There was only a short bed, a table, a chest of drawers, and a few chairs lined up in the corners.
A shelf was built into the wall on the back end of the room, with a couple of plates and cups and a little yellow box.
Luche opened the box and motioned for him to sit. “Lookie here, Dreley,” she said, pulling aside a thick strand of lapacho to reveal a sleek metal teapot. “Electric.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Do you get electricity out here?”
“No, but I go to Caracas once in awhile and buy batteries. They work better than the electricity. I got the only automatic teapot in Aldeia. Sometimes the old fat ladies come and I make them tea with lots of azucar.”
“No. What kind y’got?”
She began to speak in Portuguese, which he had only tasted. “Lo siento,” he stammered. “No hablo…”
“Ah,” she said, and rolled her eyes. She muttered, “Bobo,” under her breath.
“I was saying,” Luche said, picking out a yellowed bag reeking of marjoram from the box and dropping it into one of her chipped little cups. “I was saying that this is black tea, finest quality, from Caracas. I get it from a no-good bum in the west side and he gives me three boxes like this in trade for a bushel of my spices.”
“You’ve got a little business going, then,” Dreley said, taking the bubbling cup when she offered it.
“Yeah. Now, tell me about this cajita, your little box.”
“Oh. That. Well, it’s black and small and heavy and about this big,” he started to show her with his hands.
“Is it metal?” Luche asked him, rummaging under her bed.
“You think so? When was the last time you saw this? Ain’t this important? You don’t know iffen it’s metal?”
“When’d you see this last?”
Dreley shrugged. “Not sure. Decade ago, maybe. Decada.”
She laughed. “What’s inside?”
Dreley got down on the floor next to her and whispered in her ear. She slapped his hand away, “Idiot. That tickles.”
Then she got up and looked at him with hands on hips. “Bobo. Dreley, really?”
He shrugged again.
“Hmpf. Well, I’ve seen it.”
“Really?” he rose, excitement on his face. “Really?”
She scoffed. “Si.”
“Y por que deberia mostrarte?”
He looked at her. “Why should you show me? Because I want it. I need it. I’ve got to find it, Luche.”
“Well, I’m looking out for you, Dreley. And for the good of both of us, I don’t think I’ll tell you where it is.”
“Please!” he begged. He got down on his creaky knees and clasped his hands.
“You always were a joker, Dreley. No.”
“Sure. Here,” she said, and bent to him and whispered in his ear. “You’ve always had it with you.”
“What?” he gasped, rummaging in his pockets. He moved slower and slower until realization dawned on his face like a new-born sun. “Oh!” he cried.
Then he stood and took one of Luche’s hands. “Luche, I think I understand now.”
“Luche, will you marry me?”
She laughed. “Again?”
Luche put her other hand in Dreley’s. “Sure. You still want that box? It’s empty anyway.”
“No, thanks, Luche,” he said, and smiled. "It doesn't matter any more. Te tengo en su lugar."