When Enrique Otero was five years old, a shriveled old mango seller in Caracas told him about the heat of the Venezuelan savanna.
"First, the rocks begin to smoke," he said to the little boy, knife flashing through the fruit. "Then your nose begins to burn and you know you've breathed in the hottest part of the sun. It moves through your throat and lungs like a thousand burning needles."
Enrique swallowed, not bothering to wipe the mango juice dribbling down his chin.
"It cooks you from the inside, melting the beards off the men."
"What about the women?" Enrique whispered, wide-eyed.
The old man leaned into his face, holding a plump mango one inch from his nose.
"It burns all the hair off the women, strand by strand, root by root, until they're completely bald. As smooth as the skin on this little mango."
He was so close, that Enrique could smell tobacco and sour beer on his breath. He fled, dropping the rest of his mango and leaving the old man cackling behind him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Fourteen years later, Enrique Otero thought about that mango seller as he shifted in his chair and felt another rivulet of sweat drip down his back. Not a wisp of smoke rose from the rocks…and the thick tresses of Elorza's women seemed firmly affixed to their heads, but it didn't matter. The old man had been right. The sun baked the western plains with a heat Enrique had never known, different from Caracas. There, a sea breeze kept the temperature moderate, and icy blasts of air conditioning from shopping centers and office buildings offered some relief. Here, though, the heat pressed down from the sky and radiated through the earth relentlessly stretching across the grasslands, suffocating everything in its path.
He felt the sweat seeping from his hairline, down his neck, in his armpits and through his white cotton t-shirt. Even the back of his thighs felt damp, the heavy polyester of his uniform pressed against the plastic chair. A rusted fan in the corner creaked through its half-hearted rotation. He watched the second hand tick by on the wall clock and wondered why Captain Molina had summoned him.
Elorza was his first assignment as an army private. Small and dusty, poor and unassuming, the town’s sleepy appearance hid the long-standing feud between the local cattle ranchers and Hiwi Indians who inhabited the surrounding plains. The blood ran thick and heavy between them, the Hiwi pushing back against the farmers encroaching on their lands. Their arrows flew and knives came out, slitting the throats of the ranchers' cattle, their dogs and even the ranchers themselves. But the farmers fought back, trekking through the savanna, weapons drawn, hunting Hiwi. The soldiers spent their days patrolling the town, checking on the ranches and investigating complaints of Hiwi-led robberies and vandalism.
Enrique worked quietly and efficiently, drawing neither praise nor criticism, making neither friends nor enemies. He faded into the background, merely a name on the assignment rosters. He rose at 4:30, did his morning exercises, pledged his allegiance to the Bolivarian Revolution, received his assignment, executed his duties, ate his meals, said his prayers and went to bed. He found comfort in the simplicity of routine and hard work.
But as he waited for Captain Molina, his right knee shook involuntarily. The sweat beading on his forehead came only partially from the heat. The only people called in before Molina were the ones who found themselves mixed up in trouble. First, it was Gonzalez for causing a brawl in the local bar. Then Valdez for failing to return to the base at curfew. Then Rodriguez for stealing a truck. The weeks raced through Enrique's mind as he tried to find a reason Molina wanted to see him.
Finally, Molina's assistant appeared at the door.
"Private," he said. "He's ready for you."
Enrique welcomed the cold blast that engulfed him as he entered the tiny office. A dusty air conditioner clunked and rumbled in the window while cigarette smoke created a faint haze in the room.
Molina was standing behind his desk, examining a map on the wall when Enrique entered. He didn't bother turning around as he talked.
"Private Otero," he said.
Enrique stood at attention.
"You're doing a good job, Otero," he said. Enrique relaxed imperceptibly.
"Thank you, sir."
Molina paused to light a cigarette.
"We have an assignment for you. "
"Rodolfo Martinez," Molina said, stating the name as a fact.
"Yes, sir," answered Enrique. Martinez was one of the wealthiest ranchers in the area. Still a young man, he boasted 5,000 head of cattle and ran Elorza as though it were his own kingdom. Closely allied to the ruling party, he was widely expected to run for governor of Apure state one day. But to the troops stationed in Elorza, he was known for his hatred of the local Hiwi. Martinez was the source of many complaints against the Hiwi, so it came as no surprise to Enrique when Molina said, "Martinez says an Indian stole two of his pigs."
But Molina's next comment caught him off-guard.
"We've chosen you to investigate. You've demonstrated reliability and a level head. You will find the Indian in question, speak to him and determine what became of the pigs then report back. We will go from there."
"Yes, sir," Enrique said.
Molina regarded him intently, tapping his cigarette into the ashtray.
"I do not need to remind you of the importance of this assignment," he said.
"You're a good worker, Otero. Quiet, efficient. I had a conversation with your lieutenant – he said you could get the job done."
"I will, sir," Enrique said.
"Very well," said Molina, opening the office door. "Come in," he said, speaking to someone waiting outside.
A small, wiry man - about six inches shorter than Enrique - entered, swimming in tan pants and a green guayabera. From the web of wrinkles crisscrossing his face, Enrique placed him in his 60s or 70s. With high cheekbones and a darker complexion, Enrique guess he came from Indian blood.
Molina put a hand on the man's shoulder and faced Enrique.
"This is Lodono, our best Indian tracker. He has worked with us for many years and we trust him completely. He will accompany you. Listen to him, learn from him. Some of the army's top officers have worked with him."
Enrique nodded to Lodono. "Yes, sir," he said.
They set out before dawn the next day, aiming to cross the savanna before the sun bore down on them. Neither said much until the sky turned grey, a pale pink sunrise in the distance. Lodono stopped and gestured to the northeast.
"See those trees?"
"Yes," said Enrique.
"That's where we're headed, down by the river."
They pushed on, and by the time the sun rose high, they were trekking through the gloom of the forest. Enrique followed Lodono silently as he stepped over roots and around trees. He carried a machete, but rarely hacked at vines, preferring instead to slip around and through them, gesturing impatiently at Enrique when he thought he was making too much noise. They kept a steady pace, pausing only for Lodono to sniff the ground and change course.
Finally, the tracker crouched beneath a broad leaf and signaled Enrique to come closer, putting a finger to his lips. Enrique looked through the leaves and scanned the territory, finally seeing the group of half-naked men, women and children sitting among the mango trees, eating fruit.
"They're taking a break," hissed Lodono in his ear.
"Let's approach them," whispered Enrique.
Lodono shook his head.
"You'll never get near them. They don’t welcome strangers, especially the Army type. We'll follow them to their camp. Have your pistol ready."
"Just in case," said Lodono
Enrique pulled out his gun, turned the safety off and wrapped his finger around the trigger. They continued watching the Hiwi slicing up and devouring the fruit. Spurts of chatter in a language Enrique could not identify broke through the cracks and chirps of the forest, every so often punctuated by a laugh.
Enrique shifted and swatted at a mosquito whining in his ear.
"When will they go back to their camp?"
"Another day or two."
Enrique watched the men. They couldn't be much older than he was. They seemed relaxed and happy. He looked at Lodono who had propped his head against the tree and closed his eyes. Perhaps Lodono was wrong, Enrique thought. He was an old man after all, set in his ways. Perhaps Enrique could approach them, talk to them about Martinez's pigs, and have everything solved in half the time the tracker anticipated.
He stood up carefully and placed the pistol in its holster. Lodono's eyes snapped open.
"What are you doing? Get down!"
Enrique hesitated only a moment before stepping forward. The leaves rustled and twigs cracked with each movement. In an instant, dozens of man-sized arrows rained down on them, slicing through the vegetation, penetrating trunks. One landed barely an inch from Enrique's foot. It was sturdy and thick, almost like a spear, nearly the size of an adult male, the head made from bone, brought to a deadly point that could have easily pierced his boot. Lodono shouted at him.
Enrique grabbed the gun and fired into the air. Almost immediately, the arrows stopped. The Indians had vanished.
Lodono turned and started moving quickly along the river back toward the savanna.
"Where are you going?" Enrique asked, trying to catch up.
"Leaving," he snapped. Enrique could hear the anger in his voice. Panic clutched at him. They couldn't go back. He hadn't completed the assignment.
"Why? Let's keep looking for them."
Lodono kept up his pace, not bothering to look at Enrique.
"You only get one chance. You ruined it."
Out of options, Enrique followed silently. How could he face Molina? How could he face his lieutenant?
As they detoured around the rotting remains of some large animal, Enrique caught a flash of movement in the river. He peered more closely at the dark spot bobbing on the current.
"Hey!" he shouted to Lodono. "It's a girl!"
Lodono turned and Enrique ran to the river's bank. The woman's head kept disappearing beneath the water, and he only got glimpses of her face. He recognized her as one of the women who had been among the mango trees, and guessed her age around 30, perhaps younger. The elements had hardened her skin and added years to her face. She must have fallen in when the Indians fled, Enrique thought. She struggled against the rush of water, one arm flailing in the air.
The current pushed her downriver dragging her under and spitting her back to the surface. Enrique scrambled along the bank, over rocks and through mud, trying to keep up with her progress, ignoring the shouts of Lodono. He held his breath as the river swept her toward a rock, jutting out near the bank, but she managed to find a small handhold and clung to it with one hand. Enrique knew she couldn't last long. The rock was slippery with water, the current vicious.
"Use both your hands!" Enrique shouted to her, the river’s roar drowning out his voice. He clawed through his rucksack for a rope. Was she injured? Then he saw it. A tiny head in the crook of her left arm. She'd wrapped the infant tightly against her, hiding it from Enrique's view, but river had dislodged the bundle.
He found the rope and unfurled it quickly. It was a slender nylon climbing rope, long enough to haul her in.
He whispered an urgent prayer as he worked and called out to the woman.
"Hang on, I'm coming!"
But before he could throw the rope, a heavy hand knocked him off balance. Lodono stood over him, scowling.
"What are you doing soldier? Shoot her."
Enrique couldn't believe he heard right.
"Kill her," Lodono shouted. "They're animals."
"But she has a child."
"Kill it too. When it grows up, it's going to shoot arrows and steal too - just like the others."
"You're out of your fucking mind," said Enrique.
Lodono lunged at him, grabbing for his gun, but the little man was no match for Enrique. All it took was a push to send the tracker tumbling down the slope.
"Grab it!" Enrique called to the woman throwing the rope toward her. It landed within inches of her. Close enough. He could bring her in.
But the woman only stared at it.
"Take it!" he shouted, trying to control the alarm in his voice. "You'll be ok! You and the baby!"
The woman's eyes met his and he froze. No panic, no pleading in her stare, only hate. Her eyes, so deeply brown they were near black, seemed to glitter with such loathing, that he almost took a step back. Disgust and revulsion radiated from her with a heat that brought a sweat to his forehead that had nothing to do with the jungle humidity.
He tried to shake the rope. "Here," his voice no louder than a whisper, knowing she would never take it.
She held his gaze, eyes locked to his, a smirk almost playing on her lips as she let go of the rock and let the river carry her and the baby away.
Enrique let the rope slip from his fingers and watched her small dark head bob amid the current for a moment. Then the river pulled her and the infant down for the last time. Enrique kept watching, waiting. He didn't know how long he'd been standing there when Lodono appeared next to him.
"Come on, soldier," he said, voice heavy with sarcasm. "Molina's not going to like this. Especially that," he added, jutting his chin at the rope. "Why didn't you just shoot her?"
“Didn’t seem right,” Enrique mumbled, knowing that answer would never satisfy Molina.
He picked up his pack, leaving the rope half in the water. He didn't want to touch it again. He followed Lodono back into the jungle, around the moriche palms and through the araguaney trees, eyes trained on the ground, blinking hard to keep the tears from falling.