34 comments

Drama

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.


"Yes, sir."


"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. "


Enrique waited.


"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.


"No, sir."


"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."


"My pistol?"


"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?"


Lodono shrugged.


"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.


"Your pistol!"


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.


"What?"


"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. 

September 13, 2020 16:21

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34 comments

Thom Brodkin
15:25 Sep 16, 2020

I could never write like this. I struggle to write that which I cannot see. If I've never been there or experienced it I can't describe it. It feels to me as if this is your story, as if you were there. The descriptions and emotions are so real. Did you write this in one week or is this something you have been working on. It seems to good to be done in a week and if it was you are a genius. Great job. Great story. I don't think you have seen mine this week yet. It's called "Going Home" and I'd love to know what you think.

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Kristin Neubauer
16:56 Sep 16, 2020

Hah! No, I didn't write this in a week at all! I wrote part of it about five years ago and I can't remember how long it took me, but it sure wasn't a week. Back then, I was sort of writing a lot of half stories in notebooks, getting bored or distracted and never finishing them. I liked working on this one because I did a ton of research on it. I spent hours interviewing two university professors who had lived with the Hiwi .... and then reading journals/books to understand the savanna better. I'd spent a bit of time in Caracas for wor...

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17:36 Sep 13, 2020

I don't know what to say, Kristin. This is perfect and powerful and touching. It's everything I ache for in a story and you've done it right. Everything from Morino's calling to the assignment given to Enrique was written well. I could almost feel the heat with the way you described it. Sometimes the heat gets too much for me and I welcome that first rush of air. I was very well engrossed in the tale and it worked well because I am a fan of your work. That hate in her eyes, the willingness to just let go instead of his help is so touching....

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Kristin Neubauer
20:05 Sep 13, 2020

Thank you! Whoops on the Esteban slip....In the five-years-ago version of this story, I had called the main character Esteban. I don't know why I felt the need to change it to Enrique, but I did. I thought I caught all the mentions of Esteban, but I missed one. I will fix it now. Thanks!

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Tariq Saeed
15:43 Sep 20, 2020

U have described the shortness very well .

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Dhananjay Sharma
10:15 Sep 20, 2020

https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/59/submissions/34852/ give a read to mine

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Julie Ward
20:05 Sep 19, 2020

This story is so so good, Kristin. I read through the comments too, and I am so glad that this one didn't end up in the trash. It's too good. Every description, every nuance, just spot on. I wanted to know what was going to happen to Enrique-if he was going to turn into a horrible, soulless machine or a human being. And then the ending. Wow.

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Kristin Neubauer
18:34 Sep 20, 2020

Thank you so much, Julie! I think I am glad I decided not to delete it too. Even if this story went on past Enrique’s return to base, I don’t think I could turn him into a soulless machine. Or maybe that would make him more interesting. I’m not sure. I appreciate you reading and offering your thoughts!

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They're never going to own casinos if they keep carrying on with all that theft and violence, damnit. Well written!

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Kristin Neubauer
18:54 Sep 17, 2020

Thank you!!

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C.J 🤍
22:36 Sep 15, 2020

Awesome story!please read my new story ?

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Kristin Neubauer
16:31 Sep 16, 2020

Hi Elizabeth - sorry for the late reply. Thanks so much and yes, I'm going to head over to your page right now to read your story!

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Andrew Krey
20:59 Sep 14, 2020

Hi Kristin, I read your story and enjoyed it. The plot was very engaging. I liked that there was an inevitability to the end, only he wanted to show compassion and no one else did...not even the victim he was trying to save! Very strong ending! I loved the intro. I feel like that could have been fleshed out and been a good piece of flash fiction on its own! Although when I read the story, I did think it was going to link back to this, but unfortunately didn't. Even when they were found eating under a mango tree, I feel a little nod to th...

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Kristin Neubauer
16:15 Sep 16, 2020

Thanks so much, Andrew - and sorry for the delayed response. Crazy couple of days. Your feedback is so helpful. I've thought about the intro as a little piece of flash fiction too....maybe someday, you never know. And I liked your suggestion about finding a subtle way to refer to it later in the story. You're totally right. I'm not sure I'll ever do much with this story beyond this post, but if I do, I will be sure to incorporate that suggestion. Thank you!

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Andrew Krey
21:11 Sep 16, 2020

Great minds think alike then re flash fiction. :) I've been entering Furious Fiction, which is only 500 words, so it's given me a new found appreciation for a story that has no action, but just interaction between characters and the before and after merely inferred by the reader. It's a very unique way of writing, and your intro is perfect for it. I think it was always going to be hard with your story idea to express it all within a 3k word limit, so maybe it could be the start of a novel/novella outline :) I keep updated versions of all ...

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Kristin Neubauer
11:49 Sep 17, 2020

I checked out Furious Fiction - that sounds like fun....and incredibly intimidating! I enjoy the concept of flash fiction and the challenge of trying to stuff it all into 500 words.....but, like Economics, I may enjoy it, but I'm not very good at it. Still, maybe I'll give it a go on the next challenge in October - there's nothing to lose! Thanks for pointing it out, Andrew!

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Andrew Krey
12:51 Sep 17, 2020

Lol I never let lack of talent stand in my way! Lol Yeah I like their prompts, very specific. I've challenged myself to enter every month, and do two Reedsy prompts a month...that will be my base level of productivity if I stick to it! You should definitely give it a go, good luck if you do :)

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Rayhan Hidayat
13:45 Sep 14, 2020

Latin America is such a rich setting to explore because it has everything—revolutions, racial conflict, indigenous tribes, jungles brimming with adventure—and I think you captured that so vividly. Really takes me back to the Tintin comics I read growing up haha. Since this week is all about describing setting you really nailed that! This is so different from the last story I read by you and I’m in awe at your versatility 😮. The emotions came through so well, especially in that heartbreaking climax. This was awesome. Keep it up! 😙

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Kristin Neubauer
18:49 Sep 14, 2020

Thank you so much, Rayhan! This story was (mostly) written five years ago - a very different time in my life, so I guess a different style too. It was a little strange trying to match styles as I tried to finish it, like moving an old, stiff muscle or something like that. But I think it may have tapped something I forgot about so I'll see if I can get touches of this style into my current writing. I love Graham Greene - stories with a lot of action in far away places. I remember having some of Greene in mind for inspiration when I was t...

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Yolanda Wu
11:06 Sep 14, 2020

Wow, Kristin! This story left me so stunned and even more amazed at your writing skills. All the research that you have weaved into this story just adds so much depth, every little detail was pivotal to the reading experience. I absolutely loved that bit at the start with Enrique eating the mango and the old man. Okay, my comment is definitely not doing this story justice, but you left me so speechless! The ending with the woman and the child and the description of when their eyes met and when he gives her the rope, "knowing she would neve...

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Kristin Neubauer
18:43 Sep 14, 2020

Thank you so much, Yolanda! Go dig out your half-finished stories - I'm sure you of all people have some sparkling masterpieces in there. This one came pretty close to being purged were it not for this niggling little voice that remembered all the research I did for it. I try to keep my stories under 2,000 words and closer to 1,000 if I can manage, so it felt odd to see this one well over 2,000. If I feel like I have enough of a story to keep pushing it, I will .... but I do tend to take a hatchet to my stories before putting them out...

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Yolanda Wu
23:35 Sep 14, 2020

Yeah, I never tend to delete my stories, even my really old ones that I wrote in primary school. I remember this one particular story called 'The Land of Unicorns', I'm sure you know what that's about. I'm so glad my comments make you happy, your comments make me feel the same! Amazing work, Kristin!

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Kristin Neubauer
16:16 Sep 16, 2020

Oh my gosh - I would love to read a story you wrote in primary school! No pressure, but if you ever feel the urge to dig it out and send it....kneubauer1@gmail.com!

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Yolanda Wu
23:34 Sep 16, 2020

It may come as a shock, but I was not the most adept at writing in primary school, and not just even because of my age, I've seen plenty of young writers on Reedsy who are far better than me back then. I definitely wouldn't send the rough draft, but perhaps if I decide to revamp one of them... :)

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Kristin Neubauer
11:39 Sep 17, 2020

If you ever do, let me know! The Land of the Unicorns sounds magical....i think I would love to be lost in a Yolanda Wu story about unicorns!

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Jonathan Blaauw
06:01 Sep 14, 2020

This is incredibly powerful! Very different from what you've done before but just as good, if not more so! I love the opening, very strong, and an excellent hook for the reader. I can see by your note that you did a lot of research for this, and it shows. That's professional-level research. I know you didn't do it all for the story, but using knowledge you've accumulated for other stuff in writing is often the best way to gather material. You've created such a strong main character that by the time we get to the woman and child in the rive...

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Kristin Neubauer
18:37 Sep 14, 2020

Thank you, Jonathan! Yes - don't delete unfinished stories...esp yours! I like to purge things - emails, clothes, art and old files on computers. I'd literally dragged this into the waste basket icon and was about to permanently delete it when I figured there was no harm in sticking it onto my flash drive, just in case. Close one! It was weird to go back and read it after so many years....I could definitely feel a difference in my style. I was in a much darker place five years ago and I feel like the writing reflects that. Trying to...

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Maggie Deese
20:21 Sep 13, 2020

This story, Kristin. This story! Your writing is powerful and touching in all the right places. I was engrossed from the very beginning, listening to that man as intently as Enrique had been. Everything in this tale was so well done and written beautifully. You mention in your bio that you are in awe of everyone on this sight...well, I am in awe of YOU! Keep writing, Kristin. You have such pure talent!

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Kristin Neubauer
18:25 Sep 14, 2020

Awwww....thanks so much, Maggie. Your comments have me smiling. I don't think I would have had the confidence to finish anything - much less publish it here on Reedsy - if I hadn't been so inspired by authors like you and many others I've read. I always love reading your work!

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Kristin Neubauer
16:31 Sep 13, 2020

Author's note: I realize this is an awfully loose take on the prompt, and the argument could be made it's not close enough...but I figured that an indigenous tribe is essentially a small town and a soldier is certainly a newcomer. I was clearing off my laptop the other day when I found this story - half-finished from about five years ago. It was a lot longer with a brother and a father and blah, blah, blah. So I cut it down, rewrote and finished it. I did a ton of research for this story all those years ago. The main incident of t...

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Daniel R. Hayes
23:38 Mar 20, 2021

Hi Kristin! This story was very visualizing. I could almost feel the heat, and taste the fruit. I think that's one thing your really good at doing. Pulling the reader into your stories. The ending was amazing, and I thought you did a fantastic job with the dialog. I've been writing up a storm lately, so I know how hard dialog can be to write. You pulled it off flawlessly. I was looking forward to reading one your stories today, and this one did not disappoint. :)

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Kristin Neubauer
19:59 Mar 21, 2021

Thanks so much, Daniel! That one had been sitting on my old laptop for a few years and I almost binned it at the same time the prompt came around that sort of fit it. It was an interesting one to research - I learned a lot!

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Daniel R. Hayes
20:13 Mar 21, 2021

I'm so glad you didn't trash it. I love how you research things for your stories. That extra work really shines through. I enjoyed reading this story, so I'm glad you were able to make it work with the prompt. Believe it or not, I just wrote a non-horror story called "Call Me Lizzy" I know your super busy, but when you get a chance to read it, I hope you like it. Right now I'm working on Hot Head 3, I've had a lot of requests to do another one, but I didn't want to do it unless the idea was good. After that I'm going to write more normal ...

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