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LOWRY, Malcolm

Under the Vulcano

Oozing alcohol from every pore, the Consul stood at the open door of the Salón Ofélia. How sensible to have had a mescal. How sensible! For it was the right, the sole drink to have under the circumstances. Moreover he had not only proved to himself he was not afraid of it, he was now fully awake, fully sober again, and well able to cope with anything that might come his way. But for this slight continual twitching and hopping within his field of vision, as of innumerable sand fleas, he might have told himself he hadn't had a drink for months. The only thing wrong with him, he was too hot.

A natural waterfall crashing down into a sort of reservoir built on two levels--he found the sight less cooling than grotesquely suggestive of some organized ultimate sweat; the lower level made a pool where Hugh and Yvonne were still not yet swimming. The water on the turbulent upper level raced over an artificial falls beyond which, becoming a swift stream, it wound through thick jungle to spill down a much larger natural cascada out of sight. After that it dispersed, he recalled, lost its identity, dribbled, at various places, into the barranca. A path followed the stream through the jungle and at one place another path branched off to the right which went to Parián: and the Farolito. Though the first path led you to rich cantina country too. God knows why. Once, perhaps, in hacienda days, Tomalín had held some irrigational importance. Then, after the burning of the sugar plantations, schemes, cleavable and lustrous, evolved for a spa, were abandoned sulphurously. Later, vague dreams of hydro-electric power hovered in the air, though nothing had been done about them. Parián was an even greater mystery. Originally settled by a scattering of those fierce forebears of Cervantes who had succeeded in making Mexico great even in her betrayal, the traitorous Tlaxcalans, the nominal capital of the state had been quite eclipsed by Quauhnahuac since the revolution, and while still an obscure administrative centre, no one had ever adequately explained its continued existence to him. One met people going there; few, now he thought about it, ever coming back. Of course they'd come back, he had himself: there was an explanation. But why didn't a bus run there, or only grudgingly, and by a strange route? The Consul started.

Near him lurked some hooded photographers. They were waiting by their tattered machines for the bathers to leave their boxes. Now two girls were squealing as they came down to the water in their ancient, hired costumes. Their escorts swaggered along a grey parapet dividing the pool from the rapids above, obviously deciding not to dive in, pointing for excuse up at a ladder less springboard, derelict, like some forgotten victim of tidal catastrophe, in a weeping pepper tree. After a time they rushed howling down a concrete incline into the pool. The girls bridled, but waded in after, tittering. Nervous gusts agitated the surface of the baths. Magenta clouds piled higher against the horizon, though overhead the sky remained clear.

Hugh and Yvonne appeared, grotesquely costumed. They stood laughing on the brink of the pool--shivering, though the horizontal rays of the sun lay on them all with solid heat.

The photographers took photographs.

"Why," Yvonne called out, "this is like the Horseshoe Falls in Wales."

"Or Niagara," observed the Consul, "circa 1900. What about a trip on the Maid of the Mist, seventy-five cents with oilskins."

Hugh turned round gingerly, hands on knees.

"Yeah. To where the rainbow ends."

"The Cave of the Winds. The Cascada Sagrada." There were, in fact, rainbows. Though without them the mescal (which Yvonne couldn't of course have noticed) would have already invested the place with a magic. The magic was of Niagara Falls itself, not its elemental majesty, the honeymoon town; in a sweet, tawdry, even hoydenish sense of love that haunted this nostalgic spray-blown spot. But now the mescal struck a discord, then a succession of plaintive discords to which the drifting mists all seemed to be dancing, through the elusive subtleties of ribboned light, among the detached shreds of rainbows floating. It was a phantom dance of souls, baffled by these deceptive blends, yet still seeking permanence in the midst of what was only perpetually evanescent, or eternally lost. Or it was a dance of the seeker and his goal, here pursuing still the gay colours he did not know he had assumed, there striving to identify the finer scene of which he might never realize he was already a part...

Dark coils of shadows lay in the deserted bar-room. They sprang at him. "Otro mescalito. Un poquito!" The voice seemed to come from above the counter where two wild yellow eyes pierced the gloom. The scarlet comb, the wattles, then the bronze green metallic feathers of some fowl standing on the bar, materialized, and Cervantes, rising playfully from behind it, greeted him with Tlaxcaltecan pleasure: "Muy fuerte. Muy terreebly," he cackled.

Was this the face that launched five hundred ships, and betrayed Christ into being in the Western Hemisphere? But the bird appeared tame enough. Half past tree by the cock, that other fellow had said. And here was the cock. It was a fighting cock. Cervantes was training it for a fight in Tlaxcala, but the Consul couldn't be interested. Cervantes's cockerels always lost--he'd attended drunkenly one session in Cuautla; the vicious little man-made battles, cruel and destructive, yet somehow bedraggledly inconclusive, each brief as some hideously mismanaged act of intercourse, disgusted and bored him. Cervantes took the cock away. "Un bruto," he added.

The subdued roar of the falls filled the room like a ship's engine... Eternity... The Consul, cooler, leaned on the bar, staring into his second glass of the colourless ether-smelling liquid. To drink or not to drink.--But without mescal, he imagined, he had forgotten eternity, forgotten their world's voyage, that the earth was a ship, lashed by the Horn's tail, doomed never to make her Valparaiso. Or that it was like a golf ball, launched at Hercules's Butterfly, wildly hooked by a giant out of an asylum window in hell. Or that it was a bus, making its erratic journey to Tomalín and nothing. Or that it was like--whatever it would be shortly, after the next mescal.

Still, there had not yet been a "next" mescal. The Consul stood, his hand as if part of the glass, listening, remembering... Suddenly he heard, above the roar, the clear sweet voices of the young Mexicans outside: the voice of Yvonne too, dear, intolerable--and different, after the first mescal--shortly to be lost.

Why lost?... The voices were as if confused now with the blinding torrent of sunlight which poured across the open doorway, turning the scarlet flowers along the path into flaming swords. Even almost bad poetry is better than life, the muddle of voices might have been saying, as, now, he drank half his drink.

The Consul was aware of another roaring, though it came from inside his head: clipperty-one: the American Express, swaying, bears the corpse through the green meadows. What is man but a little soul holding up a corpse? The soul! Ah, and did she not too have her savage and traitorous Tlaxcalans, her Cortes and her noches tristes, and, sitting within her innermost citadel in chains, drinking chocolate, her pale Moctezuma?