I was reading in the living room of my grandmother’s house, in the restless silence of the early evening. A light wind was shaking the trees outside and there were signs of a very soft rain that was about to start. The living room windows were half open, letting the refreshing cool air into the house. I felt very grateful for the soft, cool breeze after a day of intense heat and bright sunlight. My father had already gone to rest in his bedroom and my grandmother had been asleep for a couple of hours. There was nothing left to do and that nothingness left me with a wide open doorway of needed solitude. I was relishing the quiet pleasure of turning the pages of my book calmly and methodically, in this place, this very couch, where I had done the same so many times before over the course of this lifetime.
Suddenly, loud voices invaded the silence. With the voices came the sound of an orchestra, a melancholic string section playing a sad melody and the sound of thundering timpani, then the sound of waves and then some more voices. I turned towards the living room and saw both Ana and Lorena sitting there, watching the small red TV that sat by the telephone. They saw me looking and they both smiled, completely unaware that the loud sound of the TV could somehow be disturbing to my reading. For them, as for most people in El Salvador, noise was the rule and silence was a strange aberration, a shared sickness to be cured as soon as possible. I had the impulse to ask them for silence, to exercise the implicit authority of my position and abruptly end the noise, the orchestra and the voices. But looking at Ana and Lorena, I realized I couldn’t ask them to turn it off. They were both too happy and too focused on the drama unfolding on the TV screen for me to ask them to stop.
I resigned myself to the loud sounds and turned away. I tried to return to reading but I kept on hearing snatches of conversation and more dramatic orchestral passages that signified an important plot development. There was no point in resisting. I put the book down, walked over to the dining room and asked them what they were watching. "It’s called ‘Storm in Paradise’… it’s the novela we have been watching. It’s the only one we really follow," Lorena answered right away while Ana just nodded her head, her eyes still on the screen. I looked at the TV and saw a blond woman behind bars, crying and asking to die. "Who is she?" I asked. They smiled at my curiosity and Lorena explained: "She is the evil woman. She is terrible. Right now she is in trouble… but usually she is so bad…" I saw the beautiful face on the screen, the wide blue eyes, the long sparkling blonde hair. "Why does she want to die?" "She is only scared," Lorena answered, "As soon as she gets out, she will be as bad as ever!" I smiled as the titles came on before the commercials. A storm in paradise… bright shining letters over a dark stormy sky, followed by sudden lightning, rumbling thunder and the crashing of waves upon a tropical beach. A beautiful, perfect place drenched in the dark waters of lust, ambition, envy and betrayal.
There were dark clouds in the distance, cloaking the sky in the color of overwhelming foreboding, but the two men insisted on diving, they could both feel that they were close, too close to give up now. The waves battered against the small boat and made it rock back and forth, while the two men continued to explore the hidden depths underneath. A small Mexican man waited aboard the boat, making sure that the men were supplied with air, making sure that the storm still was far enough away that they would be able to return to shore safely. As the night got nearer and the storm got stronger, the lone man on the deck became more and more nervous. He ran his thin wrinkled hand over his face and torso, muttering the distinct incantations of the Catholic cross.
Finally, one of the two divers surfaced only feet away from the trembling boat. He removed his mask and called out in a sign of victory: "I have found it! We have found it! It is ours!" His face was covered in water, excitement and triumph. The Mexican man nodded and smiled slightly in response, while he helped him get up on board. The other diver followed behind him. They were both American and they talked furiously to each other in English, loud raspy voices that sang a distinct melody of hard won completion. The Mexican man understood only half of what they said, but it was clear that they had achieved what they wanted and, if any further proof was needed, he could see the huge pearl shining in the white man’s hands. "After all these years… after all these dangers… " the first man said to the other, "after all this, the pearl is here, we have found it, it is ours." His eyes were wide open, shining and reckless. The other white man looked at him with a smile on his face, but with eyes that were not so open, somehow not so happy, somehow not so clear. There was a shadow about them, a shadow that was almost hidden by the water and the rain and the clouds, but it was there. The Mexican man could see it and he crossed himself again, aware that something was not right, something was not going the way that it should, something evil was looming in the horizon, something more terrible than the clouds and the rain and the thunder. Soon the boat was on its way back to shore and there was much drinking and toasting in the little bar by the pier, but the Mexican man could not look at the white men in the eyes, he had seen too much already.
I stopped Lorena on her way to the upstairs apartment and asked her about the novelas, the daily soap operas that women all over El Salvador watched with a strong loyalty that I could easily recognize and understand. She smiled at my questions and responded without hesitation. I could see that she was feeling more at ease with me, she was losing any trace of her early shyness and she was even beginning to feel a real friendship with the stranger that had come to visit. She somehow treasured my curiosity and was very eager to reward it.
"The novelas are just… they’re just a way to pass the time, you know? They help us get less bored. We just need something to do. The novelas help us to relax."
"But tell me about the novelas themselves."
"Well, sometimes they can be kind of repetitive. The same things happen over and over. I can see the stories… they tend to be the same…"
"How so? What is it that always happens?"
"Well, really… all soap operas have the same plot, the same basic story: a good woman who is completely and endlessly good, and a bad woman… a very bad and evil woman who is completely and endlessly bad."
"Like the blonde woman from last night?"
"Right, like the blonde woman. She is just terrible. She is bad. All the novelas have a woman like that."
"And there’s another woman who is good?"
"Yes, as bad as the blonde woman is, there’s another woman… a girl really… who is pure and good… you didn’t see her last night. But she’s there. In this one, and in all novelas. Always the one who is good."
Aymar crossed the luxurious doorway in a haze of shyness and fear. Her bronze skin contrasted perfectly with her white sleeveless shirt and her long black hair fell all the way to her lower back, in complex curls that touched the edge of her long white manta skirt. She looked around the room and then waited for her mother to follow her. The older woman, who crossed the doorway after Aymar, was as beautiful as her daughter, and her beauty was only subtly marred by the tiny little wrinkles around her eyes and a sense of sadness and loss that pervaded her every movement, as if transparent tears were flying out of her hands with every gesture that she made.
Inside the enormous living room, there were four men seated around an imposing wooden table. Aymar stood still, looking down at the floor and waiting for someone to tell her what to do. Her mother stepped forward and announced their presence in a loud voice that echoed through the halls of the mansion: "This is Aymar, the lost daughter of Mr. Seyles. We have come a long way to see him. We ask for your mercy and kindness. We have no other place to go." A rush of murmuring went through the room like a wave of rustling papers. Then one of the men walked up to them, smiling slightly and bowing in a display of old fashioned hospitality . He lifted his head, reached out with his hands to welcome them and then greeted them individually. Then he said: "My uncle is not here at the moment. But you are welcome to stay until he comes back." Aymar looked at him and her eyes shook with the intensity of knowing that she had seen him before, but in a land that was not here, in a place that she could not easily remember, a place that hid at the edges of her thoughts where her words could not reach. She averted her eyes and kept them away from him as he called for a maid to take them to the guest room. As mother and daughter walked away, up the long stairway and down the long hall, the murmuring in the living room erupted again and got louder. Aymar could only barely hear it. All she could see in the hall and the walls and the doorways, were the young man’s eyes and the hint of an unspoken promise that she could hardly comprehend.
"And is there always a man in between the two women?" I asked her, looking up from the couch.
Lorena nodded, her nose upturned as if to let me know that she understood how repetitive the novelas were, how predictable. She didn’t want me to think that she fell for their trickery. She might watch them but she knew better.
"That’s right. There’s always a man in between them. A man that is being pulled in two directions. "
I thought of this man caught between two forces, between two fountains of desire. The women were the poles of this universe but a man stood at the heart. The women would dance and fight and cry and scream and appear to be the main actors on the small stage of the TV screen, but it was a man that would ultimately determine their fate. A man that was cause, effect and prize. A man that stood in the middle, waiting to decide, waiting to end the tears and the fighting with a simple kiss and a timid request for forgiveness.
The High Priest grasped his scepter in tight sweaty hands and looked towards the horizon, where the ocean rose up to meet the sky and all thoughts vanished in a haze of blue and gray and wave and cloud. His long white robe was draped around his broad strong shoulders as he paced back and forth on the stone balcony of his private quarters. This was not how it should have happened. This was wrong. This was a divine betrayal and it would bring upon them terrible misfortune. But there was nothing he could do, nothing he could say that would stop the wheels that were already in motion. A white man had taken his beautiful daughter, the same one that the Priest had selected as an offering to the Gods, the same one that was born with the clear mark of sacrifice across her forehead, a mark invisible to others but bright and distinct to one such as him. Now a messenger had come running, through the hot and humid jungle of the land that was their ancestral home, a land blessed by the Gods in return for their holy sacrifice, and the messenger had come running to tell him that his gift to the Gods had run away, his most prized and loving daughter had given herself to a strange man that did not deserve her, a white man, one of the enemy, one of the alien demons that now ravished this once peaceful nation of proud and courageous warriors. Upon hearing the news, the High Priest refrained from crying. He somehow stopped himself from surrendering to the overwhelming waves of misery and despair that washed his whole body in darkness.
Instead, he walked back into his quarters and there he saw the pearl, the gigantic pearl that had been a gift from the ocean, the pure sphere of beauty that he had saved to offer to the Gods, in magic union with his daughter, on the day of the sacrifice. The great white pearl was as beautiful and unique as the prideful girl that even now was laying in the arms of a devious man without knowledge, a thief, a brute, a blonde predator in metal armor that was simply too strong and powerful to be stopped. It was the greatest insult imaginable. A betrayal so complete that it defied comprehension.
The beautiful pearl would no longer serve its intended purpose but it remained beautiful, silent and waiting, ready to serve its chosen master. He walked towards it and lifted it high into the air with both hands, looking straight into its unearthly beauty as it shone above him. In an explosion of rage that coursed through his vision and body like a tornado of hot red wind smashing against the gray rocks of his vast inner ocean, he screamed: "This pearl is now cursed. Whoever touches it, will fall sick. Whoever takes it upon himself, will be hurt. Whoever wishes to possess it, will be damned forever!" The High Priest’s eyes flared like burning stars and his face trembled with an angry rush of pure will that came up through his tensed muscles like a surge of poisonous black spit. When it was over, there was silence all around him. He placed the pearl back on its obsidian pedestal and turned away from it, feeling the ocean breeze on his back, feeling the cloak of loneliness that would now be with him for the rest of his days. He retired to his bed and fell on his back, breathing loudly with his mouth wide open, exhausted. There was nothing left to do. His work was finished, his sacred contract with the Gods was broken and it could never be repaired. But there was still the pearl, the pearl that would carry his curse forever.
"But you like to watch them…" I said it with a hint of mischief, daring Lorena to admit that something in them touched her, daring her to name what it was that brought her back to the novelas, night after night.
"I do like them. They entertain me. It’s just that sometimes they’re hard to believe…the plots are too unbelievable!" She twisted her mouth in a sign of disdain, again letting me know that she didn’t really fall for their tricks, that she could see past the illusion.
"Why? Why do you find them so unbelievable?" again hoping for a hint of the truth behind the veil of melodrama and sentimental tears. Lorena shook her head with a smile that held a seed of true curiosity.
Raquel waited inside the room that wasn’t hers. She leaned back on the white wall beside the open balcony, letting the wind play with her thin, transparent nightgown. She was completely naked under the gown, and the waning light of the dying afternoon outlined the silhouette of her slim perfect body, tracing every curve, showing sudden glimpses of tanned smooth flesh. She knew exactly what she looked like. She knew just what she was doing. Her blonde hair fell all around her shoulders, loose and dancing with the wind. Her right hand played with the pearl necklace that hung around her long soft neck. Everything was in place. There could be no escape.
She barely moved when she heard the footsteps coming up the stairway, the knob turning, the door creaking open, the gasp of surprise. "Raquel? What are you doing here?" Raquel leaned back further, letting him take in the full sensual picture that she presented, without shame, without any trace of shyness or coy hesitation. The young man stared in silence and closed the door behind him. He stopped for a moment, trying to bring himself to walk away, trying to escape from the trap that was waiting for him beside the balcony, barely covered in thin satin. But somehow he knew, as much as Raquel knew, that it was too late. He knew there was no way to avoid this. The beautiful blonde girl had made a move that he could not resist, she had attacked in a way that he could not respond to. He slowly walked towards her as she waited, breathing patiently, her eyes wide and round and blue. "Raquel, we shouldn’t do this…" Raquel extended her leg towards him and the nightgown fell open around her thigh and the young man looked down at the long tanned naked leg and he walked faster towards her, unable to stop himself, unable to ask any further questions. When his lips finally met hers, and his strong young body pressed against her own, she allowed the nightgown to fall to the floor, discarded and useless. Naked, with her arms around his neck and her heart beating wildly, she whispered softly into his right ear: "I am only giving you what you’ve always wanted. Take it. Take what you want. Take me. I am yours." Helpless, unable to look away from the bright blue eyes that were shining only inches away from his own, Elias did as she commanded.
Lorena looked at me for a moment, squeezing her face into a mild frown, thinking of an answer.
"They’re just unbelievable…because, look, there are bad people…of course there are bad people… bad people do exist, they are everywhere… I’ve heard plenty of stories about terrible people that do very bad things here in El Salvador. Back in the town where I come from and here in the city, everywhere. Almost every day I hear some terrible story about what some bad person did. This country is full of people like that."
"Then why are the soaps unbelievable?"
"Because I can’t believe that a person would keep on being so good in the face of that, that they would remain good no matter what. I can’t believe that, after being attacked in such a terrible way, a person would keep on being good, and not attack back…"
I saw then in Lorena’s eyes that, to her, evil was real and tangible. Evil needed no reasoning. Evil was true beyond question. It was good that was suspect. It was good that stretched credibility. It was good that couldn’t be. Not sustained. Not forever.
Paul, dressed in long dark robes and sitting on a wide chair that resembled a throne, looked at the strange woman they called Little Mermaid and he smiled. Little Mermaid looked up at him, her scraggy white hair was like an explosion around her face, and her wrinkled eyes were tinged with sadness and awash in curiosity. She sat at his feet, with her face upon his lap. He looked down upon her, with a long white beard that came down to his stomach and a receding hairline that made the crown of his head look like a kind of flesh colored crystal ball. He ran his right hand over her hair and pointed to the distant ocean that they could both see through the wide open windows.
"So why does Raquel do these things?" Little Mermaid asked in a soft innocent voice.
"It is all in the pearl. It is the pearl that has divided them in two. One of the two is Raquel, and she is selfish and strong and two faced. She has the explosive power of sex within her. Elias can’t resist her. For she is full of lust and she invokes that lust in him. Her beauty is the beauty of dark mountain passes in the middle of a storm. It is the beauty of a jaguar as it jumps to slash your throat. Her beauty comes from deep within her, in a place that most of us would never wish to see. She is the deep heart of the pearl, revealed in its utmost clarity through her blue eyes and her golden hair. She is irresistible and she is unstoppable."
"Then there is no hope for Aymar?" Little Mermaid asked again, looking up at Paul with eyes shimmering with admiration.
"Aymar is the other half of the pearl and so she is powerful in her own right. Her path is to suffer. For all the suffering that Raquel can give, Aymar can take it all and more. There is no painful ordeal that Aymar can’t endure and remain as she has ever been. She is the clean surface of the pearl and she can never be disturbed in her pure innocence, her pure truthfulness, her pure strength. Elias feels it within him, he can almost recognize the enduring truth that lies in Aymar, but he is charmed and enslaved by the power of Rachel. He truly loves them both. He is tortured by the idea of having to make a choice, an impossible choice that lies beyond his grasp. What he doesn’t know is that they are one. They have always been one and they will always be one. What he truly loves is the pearl and the pearl is cursed. As long as he holds them in his attention, he is cursed as well, doomed to relive suffering after suffering, with only faint moments of rest before the suffering begins again. His tortured pain will return forever, and, each time, it will be as fresh and shocking as the first time, because he will always forget and the entire story will begin again. He will walk this trail of tears for eons without ever glimpsing at the bars of his millennial cage."
"Who made this happen? Why did the pearl divide in two? Why is it cursed?"
A warm breeze came through the room and Paul nodded, looking directly into Little Mermaid’s eyes. His eyes were wide and strange and his pupils became large and filled with a blankness that seemed inhuman. He ran his long hand through Little Mermaid’s scraggly white hair and then he answered.
"I did Little Mermaid. I did it. So many thousands of years ago. It was not the High Priest as they have told you. It was not Mr. Seyles who found it at the bottom of the sea with his unfortunate friend who had no true hope of survival. It was me. I pulled it up from the grasp of the most ancient Gods of the oceans. I held it in my hands and I took it away. It was me. I split the pearl in two with a curse that would never die. My confused hatred of an instant echoed through time and eternity and came to live in this mansion, in this haunted place of endless loneliness and futile hope. And now I can only watch the results of my moment of weakness unfurl before my eyes. And as I watch I can do nothing. I cannot alter the course of events, I can’t help the weak, I can’t hurt the strong. I can’t speak to the actors in this tragic play. I can’t warn them of what’s coming. I can’t point out what they have missed. I can only watch and suffer in my own way, knowing that I was the one. I was the one who placed the curse. I split the one pearl in two and left the pieces dancing in the void, ready to become desire, envy, sadness and pain. I did it, Little Mermaid. I split the holy pearl in two."
"So, if attacked, you would respond with evil?"
Lorena thought about it for a moment, letting the question settle within her. I could almost feel the waves of thought and sensation coursing through her thick brown body, moving through her muscles, swimming through her veins.
"Maybe not evil, but maybe not so good. Who knows? It’s never happened to me. I’ve never had to deal with a truly bad person like that."
Elias stood over the cliff, his black hair dancing in the wind, his shirt half open, his eyes lost in the horizon. Aymar stood beside him, her arms around his shoulders and his arms around her waist. The mansion stood in the distance, as desolate as they had ever known it. Seen from a distance, it was difficult to believe that so many people lived within its tall white walls, so many people with such different paths in life, a noisy collective of angry bees that could not form a true hive. Aymar wore a long white dress that whipped around her legs, making little fluttering sounds as the cloth was slapped by the growing wind, a delicate counterpoint to the distant booming thunder. As the storm increased in strength, Elias pulled her soft brown body towards him. Holding her tightly, he whispered in the softest voice he could find within his chest.
"I am sorry for everything that has happened. I am truly sorry."
Aymar looked up at him and her eyes were full of kindness.
"I know you are. I believe you."
"It has been terrible, being without you. It has been terrible to see you cry."
"It has been terrible for me… to see you with her, to see you both walk together down the aisle, to see her long white wedding gown…to see you two together… it crushed me so deeply, so completely, but I never lost my love for you… I never completely lost my hope…"
Elias pulled her closer and kissed her deeply and the wind surged as their lips pressed against each other, as if the sky and the ocean knew that this was indeed a moment among moments, a unique reunion that happened only once and then again forever.
Aymar pulled back only slightly and whispered: "But what about her? What about Raquel? I’m sure she won’t be ready to accept your love for me… I’m sure she will do something."
"We will deal with her when the time comes. She is not as strong as she might think. She is not invincible. And, above all else, she is a liar. We can prove it. I now have the pearl. Little Mermaid gave it to me on the night of my uncle’s death."
Aymar closed her eyes and Elias kissed her again and rain drops began to fall over their heads, little drops of cold water sliding down their foreheads, bathing their faces in a new kind and gentle morning that would soon turn into night. It was the moment that they had expected. And at this precious moment they were together at last.
From the highest window in the mansion, a pair of eyes saw them from behind closed curtains and a pair of lips whispered: "This is not over yet. Not at all. These two don’t know what I can do. These two don’t know the extent of my influence. If I can’t have him, then nobody will." Her long blond hair fell around her thin shoulders, covering them in soft golden curls. The frame of her thin body shivered with anger. Her breath was wide and strong and hoarse, bathed in hate, hot with the fires of vengeance.
And in the distance, the lovers kept on kissing, their twin figures a simple gesture of eternity painted over the wild canvas of a gray stormy sky.
"But what would you do? If you found yourself attacked by evil? If you were attacked by an evil person, one of the many that you say exist all around you, would you respond with the same? Would you become evil yourself?"
I looked intently at Lorena, at her smile that swam in and out of existence on her thick brown face, at her open and attentive eyes, at her forehead which burrowed into a knot of inner questioning. She looked back at me then, directly and openly, and her eyes flared for a moment, like bubbles of vapor in a pot of boiling water. Then she said the truth:
"I don’t know what I would do."
I thought then that in Lorena the pearl had not been broken and that the curse extended far, but it couldn’t reach all places. There were secret caves beyond its power and she was one of them, a dry spot in the cliffs of reality where Paul’s anger could not reach. Here in Lorena, the pearl was one, it was as unified as the first moment when human eyes came to rest upon it. She was Raquel and she was Aymar, both as one. She was pure but she was lustful. She was smart but she was kind. She had a strong will but her heart was vibrant with unquestioned compassion. Maybe she followed the "Storm in Paradise" novela to catch distinct glimpses of herself, of a past that never happened, of a future that would never come. Maybe she hoped for division, maybe she hoped that Paul would finally reach within her and break her in two, so that she could end all the many years of waiting.
I thought then of all the beings trapped forever in endless cycles of life and rebirth, all cursed, all broken, all caught within the limited confines of a cubic box full of light and sound that held a window open into eternity. How many times would Elias betray Aymar? How many times would Raquel betray them both? How many times would they burst with love and happiness only to wake up lost again in the midst of chaos and confusion? How many times would the orchestra play in the distance, letting them know that the cycle was about to begin again? Maybe they could never realize that they were and had always been flat images on a screen of light, designed to provide a form of vague entertainment, flat images lost in the recurring dreams of an endless night.
and her beauty touched by evil.
Aymar in her white dress
and her innocence that is beyond temptation.
The High Priest infuses the pearl with the
black venom of his heart.
in a simple moment of happiness
that will repeat forever
but will only last an instant.
Raquel beckons from the depths
of the pearl's hidden core.
Paul standing on top of the world
as he breaks the pearl in two
and fulfills the strange work
that will be his own eternal punishment.
A pristine beach that lays open and ready
for the blood that will cover it in violence,
for the tears that will cover it in salt.