It was night. The guerrillas’ torches were still searching the jungle around the camp. The movement of the men was counterpointed by the fire-flies. Some shots echoed among voices and commands.
Keith had run as hard as he could till he arrived at a rocky wall near the mountain ridge. From there he took note of his surroundings. There was nothing else that he could see but the forest and the lights from the village run by the guerrillas. It was time to decide. The guerrillas would certainly expect him to go towards the town and the roads. There he would surely meet his death. He decided to take the most difficult route, among the rocks, taking advantage of his rudimentary knowledge of climbing. He went through the rocks, going down the steepest part, balancing his body and holding on to the ledges his nails found.
During the night he stayed doubled up in a small hole among the rocks. There was heavy tropical rain. With his head resting on a rock covered with moss and surrounded by thick vegetation, Keith recovered and lived some moments of peace. The rain was falling over his hurt and aching body. His mouth was desperate for liquid. At night, the noise of the jungle increased. Many animals went out to hunt, but the shots were coming from a distant place. One thing he was sure of: the guerrillas were temporarily defeated. A new and dangerous battle lay ahead of him. It was necessary to face the jungle, cure his injuries and try to get back to San Salvador. He was alone. He felt the heady sensation of fear and pleasure. He was an animal and a man. He needed strength to survive, intelligence to go back. He was in trouble, but it was peace, peace and nothing else he could feel when he slept, soaking wet.
In the morning, the rain eased off a little. The pain in his body was more intense. Keith yawned and stretched his stiff legs. A dense wet mist surrounded the ridge and the forest. It was impossible to see the sky. Keith craned his neck and started to listen attentively. He tried to identify the sounds he could hear. Amongst the clicking, the whispering branches, he heard birdsong and other sounds of forest animals. The guerrillas were not in the vicinity. He stood up. He looked around him and he couldn’t believe what he saw. He came to the edge of the precipice where he had taken refuge. He looked down. He had slept on a steep hill with abysses and ditches in all directions. His foot was bleeding. A large gash in his heel would make the journey difficult.
A man under such violent pressures reacts with a power equally intense. All his thoughts turn to survival and all his doubts focus on defeating the obstacles. At this moment he rids himself of all doubt and concentrates on the immediate challenges. Keith was no exception. He started moving through the rocks. He descended, carefully holding on to the branches and gaps in the rock face. The rocks were still wet and slippery. His body teetered in the air a couple of times. His heart was beating quickly, but a strange calmness came upon him at the right moment. With some skill, he reached the bottom of the mountain some hours later. He had a rest and drank some water from a mine.
His next target was to find food. He allowed himself to laugh and find things funny. He promised himself a decent dinner as soon as he reached San Salvador. He looked for food until evening. He found almost nothing. A small tree of berries, some of the fruit still green.
The second night in the middle of the jungle was more frightening than the one before. The noises of the animals and the darkness increased and with them the lack of perspective. Keith was so afraid that he couldn’t close his eyes. He slept a little and woke up startled many times. The new morning brought him some peace. As soon as his eyes could see, Keith planned out a straight line, fashioned a kind of walking stick and set out, cutting his way through the jungle.
He walked for many hours. The jungle didn’t allow for speed. There were entangled creepers, plants blocking the way, the difficult terrain. His foot was infected and his fever was more intense. At the end of the day he was tired and had started to cough.
The following day he continued walking, but he had a surprise: he passed through a part of the jungle that he already knew. He was walking in circles – a lost person almost always does. It was difficult to guide himself. It was not possible to follow the sun or the stars and there weren’t any clear tracks in the forest either. Almost everything looked the same. He became desperate. He began to think he wouldn’t make it. He started to panic and felt death closing in, until he slept were he was, sitting on an old tree trunk.
On the third day in the forest since his escape, he woke up with a fever and with a huge abcess on his foot. He coughed and felt his strength fading. He searched for food and again he found nothing. He walked till he came across a stream, which solved one of his problems. He started to follow the direction of the water. He would certainly reach the plain. There he would have more chance of finding help.
A man without direction oscillates between moments of despair and others of firm conviction. Keith followed the stream. The discovery of a way of getting out was encouraging. He went on almost in a state of euphoria. He walked as much as the obstacles and his infected foot allowed.
Eating little, sleeping in the open air and making as much effort as he could, he developed a serious pneumonia. The cough was at that moment intense and the fever was so high that he shivered during the day. His hope of finding a way out of his situation was diminishing. Had he been in good shape, he could have resisted, but he wasn’t. Each hour that passed he walked less and felt worse.
An observer with a map of his route would see Keith descending the ridge through the region that was most distant from any inhabited place. The Englishman would be seen walking some days towards the frontier with Honduras, in the opposite direction to the Salvadorean villages. It was only later that, following the Hermoso stream, he began to walk towards the villages and farms where there would be some kind of help.
The route avoided the way that led to El Plantio, occupied by the guerrillas, but made him draw a route like a huge arch that passed near other villages. His fever worsened and Keith lost his resistance. He walked a few more kilometres and then let himself collapse on a bank by the river.
His body felt soft then. His head was heavy. He shuffled sideways and used a stone as a pillow. Above him clouds were passing, beside him there was the forest. The flowing water murmured repetitively. Keith let himself go.
His body collapsed from the rock and fell in the direction of the sky. The clouds made a kind of vortex and erased the landscape around him. Keith fell into empty space. He screamed and moaned. A flash of memories. He was passing through a sort of tunnel that blurred all reference to space and time. Everything disappeared. Colours, sensations. He shouted and woke up, startled, in a dark, circular valley. Around him there were a hundred or more mutilated bodies moving and groaning. People without arms, others without legs. Children and women with broken shoulders and blind eyes. Pieces composed of intestines and organs, split abdomens. What place was this ? He tried to escape, but he couldn’t. The ground was made of bodies that were decomposing and were moving ceaselessly in a kind of sticky sea. His feet were sinking, crushing people, suffocating, transforming them into a viscous liquid. Some arms stuck out, waving. Their fingers were missing and some of them were only elbows. Bodies without heads were groaning with guttural sounds as if the voices were coming from their guts. The sky above was black and groaning too.
“Senor, senor !” – he heard the voice, distant and weak.
He tried to open his eyes and face the light.
A couple of sharp slaps to his face made him wake up. The first thing he saw was a thatched roof, then mud walls, a couple of peasants and the attentive eyes of five children. The woman, with a small yellow cloth round her head had the smell of the land and was cleaning the injury on the journalist’s foot. Her husband was trying to revive him. “Senor!”
“Uhh…,” murmured Keith.
The children edged closer. Two went out to play. Keith became frightened and quickly tried to get up. His foot struck the woman and was grabbed by the man.
“They’re shooting,” shouted Keith, in English.
“Calm down senor, calm down. You’re getting better. Soon you’ll be well.”
Some time later Keith discovered where he was. He was in the Venturas’ house, peasants that had escaped from the civil war and had fled to the forest, far from the conflict. According to his host, Keith was found delirious by the river. Lying on the ground, he was shouting sideway with his tongue twisted as if he were possessed by the Devil. It had been difficult to get him home.
He had been unconcious for two days when he woke and shouted the same things. They had prepared teas, applied some medicinal roots and taken care of him until that day. The injury on his heel was almost cured. Though free of pus, the area was still red and painful. His cough was less constant and weak and he was recovering from the pneumonia. The fever was abating.
“I’m grateful for what you’ve done for me.”
“It’s an obligation for a catholic to help anyone who needs it,” answered the man.
The children smiled shyly. The woman leaned on the wall and looked down.
“Senor, a few days more and your tongue will not be twisted anymore,” said the man.
“I hope so,” he said.
“There aren’t many people like you around here. By any chance, are you a relative of the Granados’ ?”
“No, I come from a distant place.”
“From San Juan?”
“Not exactly. I’m sorry to ask, but I don’t know where I am.”
“You are five leagues from San Antonio.”
“And what about San Salvador?”
“The capital must be somewhere very far from here. We have never been there.”
“And the nearest town to San Antonio?”
“It’s San Juan. Do you intend to travel?”
“I have to travel.”
“You should rest a bit more.”
“I need to go. And the war? Who is in control here? The government or the guerrillas ?”
“Have you lost your memory?”
“I think so.”
“The war is in the North. Here there is nothing. No towns, people or farms. Nobody owns this land.”
“And San Antonio?”
“Now it’s controlled by the government.”
“How can we get there?”
“There’s a fair there every Saturday. The next one, you’ll come with us.”
Keith relaxed. Then he sneezed.
“God bless you,” said the peasant shyly.
The news of Keith’s escape arrived at Los Rosales and travelled down the mountain to Las Flores from where an informer carried the news to Antonia. Through this man she discovered that the Englishman really was Keith O’Brien and that he had disappeared in the jungle for almost a week.
After so many false leads, the news coming from the mountain revived her hopes. With a map of the region, she drew possible routes for the journalist’s return. She asked for ten men and posted them around the neighbouring villages where Keith had last been seen.
The wheels of the cart rattled along the track. One last bend and San Antonio appeared, down in the valley, surrounded by pasture. The tall church tower stood out from the coloured houses lining the winding contour of the valley.
The peasant family, wearing their best clothes, were on their way, together with the neighbours from the country, to the fair and to mass. In borrowed clothes, Keith was among the adults on foot. They all were sweating. It was almost mid-day and they had been walking for some hours. The men were talking aloud, reciting extracts from the Bible and old popular songs. The women walked silently, holding their parasols. “Senor ! Soon you’ll be back home. God hasn’t failed in helping you,” said Jose.
“That’s what I most want now,” answered Keith.
“You can catch the three o’clock bus. It’s the one that goes to San Juan.”
“Before that I’ll need some money and documents.”
“Priest Leiden is a very good man. He’ll help you, with the blessing of God.”
“I hope so, I hope so…”
On Saturday the streets of the town were taken over by the crowd of visitors. They came from the surrounding countryside, strolling among the various stalls that sold everything from maize to flour and meat. The square was surrounded by four dusty lanes, and most people headed there. The peasants not only went to the church services celebrated every hour during the weekend, specially on holy dates, but they also went shopping. In the middle of the confusion, Keith shook hands with the family that had helped him. Among the stalls, flour sacks and grains he thanked them for their hospitality and regretted not being able to recompense them for what they had done for him. The Salvadoreans said goodbye. The children became shy and the woman emotional, becoming a little distant. The husband made the sign that it was God’s desire. Without wasting his time, the Englishman climbed up the steps of the church, looking for the priest. Jose threw a sack of maize on to his back and turned away, tugging his wife after him. The children followed them. They moved away, vanishing into the crowd.
In seat number 7, Keith was still thinking about recent events. The priest from the village, a Dutchman in penitence in that distant place, had been living there since l947. An enigmatic and intelligent man, he had decided to dedicate his life to God’s children and ignore his own comfort. Without travelling, even to the capital, the priest had incorporated a great deal of the local culture. He still had a strong accent and a humanistic culture, gleaned from his private library and in correspondence with Europe.
Keith had been honest with the priest and had no difficulties in arranging lunch, clothes and the small amount of money that would be enough to take him to San Salvador. He also asked the priest to invent a false story to secure the temporary documents for the trip.
In his seat, waiting for the departure of the bus, as usual full of passengers and animals, he remembered with affection the people who had saved his life without asking for anything in return. He remembered the moments he lived through in the jungle and amongst the poverty, not behaving like a man. He sighed, feeling released. Being there was a kind of miracle. He had joined a war that wasn’t his. At that moment he was escaping from it.
A tall, strong man sat beside him.
“Good afternoon, senor O’Brien. There’s no need to be frightened. I’m here on Miss Vidal’s behalf. She has been following you since you disappeared in Europe. She asked me to give you this.”
He leaned over and gave Keith a sealed envelope containing a brief message. Keith read it.
“I want you to send a message to Senorita Antonia,” said Keith.”Tell her I will call her as soon as I arrive in San Salvador and tell her that…” (“I love her”) he thought without speaking.
“Can you say where you’ll be?”
“At the moment no.”
The return to San Salvador seemed endless. Finally the bus defeated the quagmires and the barriers, arriving at the capital. Keith caught a taxi and went to the hotel where he had stayed under the name of Thomas Whitehead. It was ten p.m. when he arrived at the Hotel Granada. He collected his belongings and the money that were with the manager and a room was arranged. The caretaker recognized him.
“You took a long time,” the man commented.
“I had some problems. In my job things never go the way we plan.”
“And the farms, senor? What are they like?”
“Promising, dear boy, promising,” answered Keith.”With a bit of technology, you’ll be able to produce a lot of food.”
The Englishman received his key and went to his room. The caretaker picked up the phone and made a single call.
The lift door opened. Keith dragged his case to his room. He went in. He filled his lungs with air. He felt happy being alive. He smiled.”What should I do first? ,” he thought. There was a bath waiting, the window to open, to lie in bed and stretch out his legs. He could call London immediately, or perhaps Antonia. He could order a steak. If possible, he would get drunk on beer. He went to the window, opened it and breathed the air deeply. He called room service.
“Please, two beers and a Cuban steak… I’ll be having a bath. If I don’t answer the door, keep trying,” he asked. He was free, back to the world he knew. He went to have his bath.
The informer contracted by Antonia had followed Keith to the hotel entrance. She, at home, had already been contacted, receiving news of her lover. She was looking forward to Keith’s call, pacing from one side of theroom to the other. Her watch read 11:23 pm.
When Keith finished his bath, another man, in a beige suit, lighted a cigarette. He was in the street, opposite the hotel. The mandragore, the sign on his lighter, shone in the night. He and an assistant were talking to the caretaker.
Keith lay naked on his bed and put through a call to Antonia. His heart started to beat faster. She answered. Since the episode in the South of France, when Domingos was found, he had grown suspicious of her. Because of her connections with the man and her frequent trips abroad, Keith took it for granted that she was involved in espionage, specially regarding Cayman Operation. After what he had discovered on his return to Central America, it was clear that she had been used innocently in an operation never seen before in the history of counter-espionage in Central America.
“Keith… I can’t believe the voice I’m hearing,” she stammered.”How my heart aches! What happened to you? Why did you disappear?”
“It’s a long story. I found out some things and I decided to investigate.”
“You were almost killed !”
“I took a few risks, that’s why I didn’t want to involve you.”
“All I’ve been doing is looking for you all this time. Why did you vanish without telling me anything?”
“You didn’t trust me.”
“…I needed to disappear for some time.”
“In Europe they think you were killed.”
“Good ! It’ll be fun to play a trick on them.”
“Keith, Keith, I love you so much! I want to see you now!”
“I miss you too. I must tell you, they want to kill me. I’ve got some priceless information. I’m going to leave the country as soon as possible. Actually, tomorrow morning. I’ve got plans for us. I wouldn’t like to risk your life by meeting you here.”
“I wouldn’t care if it meant I could see you now.”
“Let’s be sensible. I’m crazy to kiss you. But I want more than that – will you come with me?”
“Come with me ? Shall we go away tomorrow ? We can have a real honeymoon wherever you want. And, I promise not disappear again…”
Antonia hesitated at the other end of the line.
“My love, I disappeared because I had to know more about that Operation. Give me a chance. Meet me tomorrow at nine in the airport restaurant.”
“I can’t wait to get away from here.”
“I don’t know…”
“Nine o’clock in the morning ?”
“With all your luggage packed.”
“Nine o’clock with my luggage packed. Ok, I’ll be there…”
“And can’t I see you now?”
“Pack your things. Let’s not take any risks. Leave discreetly tomorrow.”
“Where are you?”
“Hotel Granada. Please, all I ask you now is: don’t come, meet me at the airport.”
“I love you.”
“See you in the morning. You are going to forgive me, I’m sure.”
The bell rang. Keith continued on the phone.
“My dinner has just arrived. The service here is not very good. Would you believe it if I told you that I ordered my dinner forty minutes ago? I’m hungry. See you tomorrow.”
1989 – Copyright of the Portuguese version by
Chapter 38 (click to continue)