Rain gathered in the clouds over the exposed guts of the hills on the edge of San Cristobal. Why had he waited this long? Cold air displaced the lazy hot air of the plaza. It was as if he had walked into shadow, but the sun shone. Heavy black clouds passed slowly under mile high cumulus.
It looked as if a giant had dripped two drops of concentrated acid on the hill facing the city and they had eaten the grass and tree roots and topsoil and bedrock through to the white calcium below, to be harvested by its myrmidon ants. The ants and their little yellow trucks seemed in no hurry to beat the rains.
The long-tailed black birds were silent. They watched him, snapping their heads from side to side, clicking from eye to eye. One hopped, on the walk, in front of him. It led him to the top of the steps. The boy looked back. The walkway was a straight line to the center of the plaza.
Below him was a grid of large, terracotta tile. Breaking the grid, a deep orange concrete ravine. Far to the right was a bridge that spanned the shocking orange gap. It was too far in the wrong direction. The bird jumped into the air and flew to the left with the wind. He followed. He could see where the grid disappeared into a stand of broad trees that overhung the manmade ravine.
The tile reminded him of poolside at St. Parm and the pool reminded him of the pool's bathroom and the bathroom reminded him of his phone. He had painted Malbec white with the Wite-Out his father had given him. Malbec had begun life as a burgundy flip phone. A hand-me-down from his father who had sat on it or dropped it and cracked the screen. Only slightly. But enough to turn it into embarrassing junk. The Wite-Out paint job was his acknowledgement. As was the toilet flush sound effect he added for ON_HANG_UP.
Halfway to the trees he decided to have a look down into the orange ravine. It took that long to build up his curiosity to build up and overcome the discomfort he felt for steep heights and clean edges.
He knelt down on the warm tile and spat over the edge into the accumulation of skeletons of plants and tiny mammals and snakes waiting to be washed away. One year's worth. Tomorrow it would be gone, he thought. And Malbec.
Funny, he thought. Not a ravine. A canal. Squared off at the base, straight walls. And although the color reminded him of a counter top he had once known that was lined with small orange tiles like a bloody sunset had dripped into glass and congealed—the canal walls were lined in a faded red plastic that now, to him, stunk in the warm Mexican sun. He had the momentary impression that there was in fact no earth beneath the plastic and it was being held in its perfectly square corners by a frame, suspended over a much deeper rift, and that perhaps if he were to jump onto its surface he would tear through and continue on to the hot, humid depths and magma below. He watched for any rising or falling of the base layer and judged it to be solid—or at least a good fake. That was something his father would have said—a joke like that.
Before he got to his feet, he looked at the tile below him. It wasn't masoned into place. There was a centimeter of cork separating each meter-square plate. The whole beautiful grid was temporary and the weight of the tiles kept the grid's integrity.
As he approached the trees he thought that for a temporary thing, the canal and its tile seemed old. He lifted his eyes to the clouds and felt that he could be following an aqueduct, something built by long-dead slaves. "Slavery or communism, pick one," his World Civilizations teacher used to say. His father said Mr. Chevetski had already made his choice.
The soles of his shoes. Pick up your feet. The front of the soles shredded against the sharp edges of the glass tiles. Pick up your feet. He panicked that the tiles were for decoration and not meant to be walked on. He looked back to the plaza. No one noticed him.
The orange tile path ended in a thicket of dry tangled vines. The sheer crumbling banks of the ravine melted under gravity and the hand of nature and probably the feet of kids. Under the curling vines the tiles broke apart, too, no longer supported by the eroding bank. And where the tiles broke away, empty razor-sharp squares waited to slice away at the limbs of the unsuspecting. Small piles of orange glass rested at the bottom of the dry creek.
Something moved on the animal path in the thicket. Something large. The scale of it frightened him. It was grey and wide like a tree, but it moved steadily. The boy froze. For a time it was hidden in the choking vines and for that moment the boy's fear froze too, his pulse frozen. On the other side of the vines he saw that it was a man, not a bear. Nothing wild: a man. But the man frightened him more. The man made no sound passing through dried leaves. Made no sound crossing the wide ravine in three enormous, halting strides—as if the bulk of the man weighed nothing. He seemed to be passing in a different time. Seconds and sound meant nothing to the man. The monster. The boy watched the heavy grey clothes of the figure disappear into the thicket on the opposite bank. The thicket absorbed him.
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