Here you must be so careful. Scan each of the shadowed branches that intertwine above you. The pacazo is waiting, will wait as long as necessary.
Reynaldo says that the pacazo is nothing but an uncommonly large iguana. I prefer to believe that it is some imp of history, coincidence made scaled flesh, a god no one worships anymore, not magnificent in its fury like the gods of the Wari or Moche or blood-smeared Chavín but some petty, bitter, local god who hates fat pale pillaging strangers. Reynaldo also says that in some places pacazos live on the ground, that here on campus they live in trees because of the foxes that come from the desert at night. This cannot be true. The foxes are the size of house cats. The pacazo is seven feet long, and if a fox were to pass too close by, the pacazo would seize it by the head and crush its skull.
Out of the trees and into the sun, across the grass to a bench in thin shade. As I sit down, the bench bows. I wait, release my breath, let my weight settle to all sides. Place my briefcase beside me. Take out a handkerchief, daub at the sweat in my beard.
The nearest building, sharp white. I close my eyes. There is the smell of decomposing leaves, of heat and wet grass. I have been this tired before but do not remember when and a ship drifts south along the coast toward the mouth of a river. A shout goes up. The men gather at the port gunwale. There is a Tallán mending a net on the bank. He is the first human they have seen in two days, perhaps of use. The men drop anchor, lower the skiff, go to get him.
The Tallán sees them coming, stands and stares. The sunlight flashes from their metal skin. Then a sound, the rasp of the skiff as it slides up onto the sand. The Tallán drops his net and runs.
It does not take long for the others to chase him down. They drag him back up the beach and throw him into the skiff, row him to the ship, pull him aboard. They stroke his black hair. The captain comes, looks, comes closer. He lifts the man’s chin, gestures at the shoreline and speaks.
The Tallán watches the captain’s lips as they move, understands nothing. When there is silence he looks from one bearded face to another. Again the captain gestures, and the Tallán guesses that a name is required, but a name for what? The captain takes hold of the hair at the man’s nape. The Tallán blurts out the name of the river, Virú, but there is no response and he panics, stutters, tries his own name, Pelu. Now the captain smiles. He draws his dagger and cuts the Tallán’s throat, rolls the corpse overboard, settles on something halfway between the two words, and thus the most famous saying here: An Indian misspoke, a Spaniard misheard, and Peru has been fucked ever since.
Someone says hello and I open my eyes. It is a former student, pleasant and smart and I do not remember her name. She looks at the bench as though hoping to join me. If I shifted to either side there would be room for her. Instead I smile. She smiles back, nods, finally walks away. Still half an hour before my next class and a murmur rises and ebbs in the closest building. It is called Administration, is in fact a mix of offices and classrooms, History department on the ground floor. The dean is not unkind but has no use for me though I know more about the Conquest than anyone else on campus, and this version of the naming of Peru, I wonder where I heard it.
Reynaldo, probably. In other local versions the native’s name is not Pelu but Belu or Beru and he is not Tallán but Inca or Chimú and he is not killed but enslaved or released. These versions are all plausible and likewise false: 1522, six years before any Spanish ship made it this far down the coast, and Pascual de Andagoya searches east from Panama City, then south into Colombia. Gold and pearls taken from the tribes he encounters and now his Chochama guides point farther south. Birú, they say, and this is the name of a province or perhaps the curaca who rules it. Birú is very rich, they say, and each full moon the warriors come north to kill us. Soon this province too and its pearls and gold have been claimed. The curaca is brought forward, and Andagoya asks, and the curaca points still farther south—an empire, unthinkable quantities of gold, and this is the error that will occur, the name misaffixed and morphing into Perú, and Andagoya goes, or tries to. He makes his way to the coast with the curaca in tow as guide or hostage or ally, explores portages in a large canoe. And one day well up the San Juan the canoe overturns. The curaca catches hold of Andagoya, lifts him onto the back of the canoe and I remember the feel of that water, warmer than you would think, Andagoya’s clothes slow to dry in that humid heat and soon he is sick, bronchitis or pneumonia. Is carried back to Panama. Tells his stories to all who will listen, Pizarro in the back of the room and more students now, they stop to say hello, and I nod to each.
Again the handkerchief. I wipe my forehead, my face. Reynaldo says there are several pacazos living on campus, but I have only ever seen the one: long thin scar down its left side, missing the second toe on its right front foot. I have seen it nine times in my four years here. Most often it was gray, but once it was brown, once green and once black.
Its color depends on the light, I suspect, and there was a day when it chose a branch too thin for its weight, came crashing down in front of me. Fat and gray and ugly. Stared at me, then stepped toward the nearest trunk, its head up, crest erect, eyes narrowed against the sun. It stepped slowly, as if it were ancient, as if it might never die.
That was early in my first year. Reynaldo said, Yes, ugly, but harmless. Eight months later shit sprayed down from the trees, a pint of rancid molasses across my head and shoulders and perhaps it is not that the pacazo gods hate all foreigners but that this one has been assigned to me personally. Intestinal parasites, Reynaldo said, or the stool would have been odorless and less viscous. This did not help. It took weeks to wash the smell from my hair. All but one of my students moved to the farthest rows.
A similar smell: the mixed air of offal and urine and sweat that wells up from the open drain near my house. Most of the city’s drains collapsed fifteen years ago in the storms of the last El Niño, and have not yet been repaired. There are also the smells of garlic and sweat in every kitchen in Piura. Of mushrooms and sweat in the brothels. Of jasmine and laurel, plumeria and sweat in the streets late at night. It is always hot here, always, and the physicist who runs the university weather radar says that this year will be hotter still, that El Niño is coming back.
My wife smelled of mango and cypress and sage between her shoulder blades.
Fifteen minutes to class. Reynaldo, my friend and colleague, botanical chemist, and he is the reason I know the names of trees: zapote, charán, matacojudo. Mata, from matar, to kill. Cojudo means imbecile, and only an imbecile would walk beneath a matacojudo tree in April, which in Piura is the middle of autumn. The matacojudo fruit looks like an immense potato, the kind that certain people marvel at, and save on their mantels. They can weigh twenty pounds apiece, can bash through bone if they fall from high enough. So far I have been lucky. Matacojudos have no commercial use. Neither does pacazo shit, but it is in one sense essential. If you do not stop screaming, the pacazo will shit on your head—according to what I have read, it is okay to say this to your baby daughter as long as you use a voice empty of agony or rage, and full of love. They only understand the tone.
Reynaldo lives with his aunt across the river in Castilla, a district named for what once was the richest part of Spain. Here it is the driest and dustiest section of this small dry dusty city, and his aunt is enthusiastic but often ill. Reynaldo will only date women from other countries, anywhere but Spain. This year women have come from Canada and Holland and Mexico to give conferences and seminars, and he has failed with all of them. His most beloved possession is a motorcycle that has never run properly, and at the university he mixes things, creates, teaches botanical and other kinds of chemistry.
I teach English, and mix nothing with anything else. My students learn to conjugate, to skim and scan, to curse appropriately and forgive my lapses, to write resumes and reports and love notes, to ask favors without giving offense, all in English, as if this will help. I would like to tell them the truth, but they are too beautiful.
Ten minutes now. The other professors still look at me with expressions of pity and concern, still invite me to parties at their houses. I no longer go but when I did there were women with long legs and short skirts and tight colorful blouses, the rooms smelled of rum and perfume and sweat, and everyone drank and danced beneath the Sacred Heart of Christ, chest cut open and heart bound in thorn, the small red bulb at the bottom of the frame and Pilar’s hair hung almost to her waist. Her eyes gathered all light. When she danced, the air went slick and sweet with her movement and I leaned against the wall to keep from falling.
Piura is a city nagged by time, insulted and degraded by time, perhaps allied to it as well. It floats in the heat, chaotic, indifferent, a gathering of things that are hard to understand. One often eats seafood for lunch, but rarely for dinner. When it rains hard and long, fires start and the water to all homes is shut off. There are porcelain figurines of puppies and rabbits and chickadees on most countertops, even those of people who should know better.
Twenty years ago an exchange student from Abancay arrived at my high school in northern California. He told me that in Peru even fat ugly men can marry attractive intelligent women who love to swim and dance and love, as long as the men have blue eyes and foreign passports and are not totally cojudo. I know what this makes me, do not have to be told what this makes me, but Pilar sat in the front row alone and made me promise never to leave Peru. Not a matter of passports, then, and she saved me or would have. Reynaldo said that dating a student was manipulative, unethical and repulsive, though not an uncommon phenomenon. I told him that he was right. He said she would break my heart. I did not listen.
Perhaps I would have listened if he had said, She will alter what it means to be in the world, she will go late to the outdoor market to buy mangos, she will peel them and cut them in slices, she will allow you to run the slices across her bare stomach and thighs and between her shoulder blades, the juice will become one of her many scents and flavors, and four weeks after giving birth to your child, she will be taken into the desert, will be raped, strangled, left for dead, will regain tortured delirious consciousness, walk the wrong direction, and die of heat stroke the following day.
And this will be your fault.