I cannot say that I had remembered him very well, but now a clear memory pops up from that boat journey we did together almost forty years ago. There was not much else to do on board, so we got to cling to each other and I listened day after day to his story about having been a coyote in Lima. He did not use that word, the nickname was my invention because that was exactly what he was, on the hippie hotels around Plaza de Armas – Comercio and Pacífico, if I am not mistaken; they are of course gone now. He was only nineteen but very cunning, if not only immensely naïve. As a decoy for some petty dealers, he himself got provisions of cocaine and marijuana.
That time he did not return to Peru, although I assumed that he was heading here. We broke up in Buenos Aires and never had any further contact. In a way that was odd, given how confidential we had become during two weeks at sea. But he had provided me with a secret to keep. There was nothing to add. Forty years later he looks astoundingly the same, although the hair is white and the face marked by deep furrows. The scars that he showed me then have been even more emphasised, a reminder of the two days and one night he could not account for. But the eyes which I recall as immensely sad are now rather taunting.
He could not possibly recognise Alicia – la ñusta as he had called her in his beautifying account – but he was obviously deeply touched, and even blushing, when he took her hand and then bowed down to kiss her on one cheek, the Argentinean way. She had of course no recollection of him. It amused my sadistic self to witness their encounter, one blind and completely paralysed, the other surprisingly well kept physically but still apparently marked by a life that had not turned out the way he had hoped. Already then, forty years ago, I made the reflection that he had gone out. A faint light sparked in his eyes only when he spoke about Alicia. I was cruel not to tell him about our relationship then. But what purpose would it have served to make him jealous? Or to give him hopes that would surely never be fulfilled. I am cruel now as well, but to disclose the secret retroactively would be even crueller. Now he greets my wheelchair-bound wife and not even her name induces any reaction. The connection is of course far too unlikely – and after fifty years he has possibly, certainly, overcome an infatuation that had more to do with obsession and madness than love. La ñusta, the Inca princess, the beauty queen of Ancash … Her more appropriate name would have been Mama Coca.
I don’t know how he ended up in her net. Maybe she played with him, as with all men, although strictly speaking he was only a boy. I had listened to his story with such great interest, because it gave me insight into a part of Alicia’s life that she was ashamed of. When we were colleagues at the Ministry of Agriculture, I was completely unaware of her double life. She never even presented me to her then husband, who was also a Swede and a drug fiend, yet unlike Coyote, only a consumer. The husband could afford to pay for the coke and the grass that never petered out in the two-room flat in Miraflores. She was, how do you say, co-dependent … No, in fact, she was the one who was most given to it, and it marvels me that she kept the glow up for so long. Only after the divorce did she go down. In the Ministry we assumed that she had taken leave to visit her family in Huaylas. We were not aware that she did not have one. What she did not want to talk about – and I did not want to know – was how she prostituted herself in order to keep up the expensive life in Lima. A full year that she could not account for, which we have erased from the calendar. Even after becoming wheelchair-bound, before she lost the ability to speak, she could jokingly present herself as a sober cocaine addict – cocainista sobria – and it always invoked a moment of awe, as to whether that was also the explanation for her disability. A punishment.
Lima was a small town then. Not innocent but forgiving. It was perhaps inevitable that two Swedes would run into each other. He stayed three weeks in their apartment, until the husband took his hand away from him and broke the spell. Coyote had then been disappeared for two days and one night and come back with his face cut up.
Why, after almost fifty years, had he come back now? To get clarity, he explains head-on. He had published a book a year after our encounter on the boat, on a small publishing imprint run by a group of Uruguayan anarchists in Swedish exile. I knew the leader, Rubén, with whom I had collaborated in Mexico, and he sent me a copy of the book. I can’t read Swedish, but I could detect that the conversation we had on Cabo San Vicente was partly reproduced. I gave the book to Alicia who remembered some scant Swedish from her first marriage, although she had never been to Sweden – the planned journey to see her husband’s family had never materialised. She started to stumble through the introduction but soon gave up. I don’t know if she was badly affected. The book lay on the table for a while and was then forgotten. I thought I had shelved it in the library in my study, but when I look for it now, it is gone. Maybe Alicia took being reminded about that time really badly – and threw it away. Now he tells me about the book that had taken so many years to write, apparently not aware that I already know about it. But it had turned into a cock-and-bull story about cocaine smuggling that had blocked the way for his understanding. Do you understand? He stares straight into my eyes and smiles tauntingly. A real wolf-grin.
I show him to his room. We make a long detour through many rooms and corridors, in order for him to lose his orientation. I don’t know why, but it amuses me to see him confused. He induces some strange grudge in me, a side of myself that I ought not want to acknowledge, a violence of which I did not think I was capable.
He comes into a house and cannot come out. All the rooms face an inner courtyard. From the courtyards all rooms look alike. He is always mistaken, but it doesn’t matter, because the rooms differ only in small details, the nuance of the curtain inside the jalousie, the damp stains on the wallpaper, the location of the wall sockets … He goes to sleep in a new bed with clean sheets every night. Thus, weeks go by, in semi-dormancy. The memories come back in a small runnel, most of them meaningless; they have long since lost contact with who he is, they go helplessly astray in search of the shadow of who he was, somebody he no longer knows. Enrique. As if the memories emanated from the place, not from his subliminal consciousness, as if they had come to the surface like melting permafrost from the Andine tundra (the earth before the conquest), from the walls, from the well beside which a woman in bowler hat and layer upon layer of garish garments is keeping watch day and night with a ball of yarn in her hand. Alicia, laDoña, with riding rod and boots. Under the layers of cardigans, she is much thinner than he remembered. More serene. The grey hair combed back in a topknot. The black eyes penetrating. The chest flat (double-fried eggs). The next day the hair is rash and the eyes cataract grey, for a vanishing moment it is his mother who sends a cold chill from head to perineum. The day after, she is the woman in the wheelchair, Don Sergio´s unseeing wife who greeted him with a lame hand in the foyer.
Alicia is anxious when I put her to bed. She senses that something is not right. I creep close to her and hold her tight, but she rejects me although she cannot move an inch; that’s how strong her integrity is. She does not see, but she feels, and although she cannot speak, I know that she understands. But I don’t know what it is she understands. The next morning, he is gone without a trace. The bed is made, as if nobody had slept in it. There is a folded note on the bedside table with a sentence in Swedish: en trebent gycklare i Limas djungel, så luden som koka.
When I typed it into Google translate it came out as rubbish: Un bromista de tres patas en la jungla limeña, tan peludo como hierve [A three-legged joker in the Lima jungle, as hairy as it boils]. To double-check I translate it back to Swedish and get a sentence that almost completely differs from the original. After another two or three trials back and forth, Google alters the final words to: peludo como un cocinero [hairy as a cook]. Then I see his wolf-grin and give up.