North For The Festival

By Stephen O'Donnell

Predawn and raining. The sky a bruised blue. Only bad omens since he set out. A bullfrog dead in the road. Swarming with ants. He knew it would be bad before he reached the jetty.

He rises and dresses and drinks a cup of too hot coffee. Tells the old man goodbye.

It’ll be alright, the old man says.

Now he sits at the edge of the water and folds his ticket. A cat brushes his shin. He sits in his silence, watching the water between the planks.

Slowly, the jetty fills. Sunburnt tourists and sleepy schoolchildren. He watches a woman with red hair pointing to a ray moving with a smooth grace below the surface. More tourists drop their backpacks on the jetty and gabble among themselves or wade down the shore.

A local boy passed and said good morning and Willie answers: you too.

The tourists in the water take photos of the beach and of the palm trees and the water. Then they take photos of each other.

A schoolboy tugs his mother’s wrist. Why do they take so many pictures Mamma? What they trying to catch?

A thin blonde woman lifts, small and struggling from the sea, a turtle. She carries it to her family to photograph. The seaturtle paws the air furiously. The ticket man bellows at the woman. She drops the turtle and then shrugs and smiles. The ticketman met Willie’s eyes and they both shook their heads. The gang of school children giggle.

The ferry pulled alongside the pier and the passengers gathered their things and began to board.

He sits aft, near the three outboard motors. The blades churn up a wall of white foam. The sunlight unforgiving as the boat noses through patches of emerald and brown seabottom. Scaring cormorants.

He catches himself looking backward. At the slow shrink of the cay.

One of the ferrymen sits beside him.

Where dya go to the mainland Willy? To the city?

Yea, Willie says. His throat is dry. How you likin boat work?

I like it good, the man says. Part from some a’dese fools. He nods slowly to the group of tourists talking loudly. Had one of em pukin all ova yesterday. An once one pop they all pop.

Willie nodded and forced a smile.

The boy hauled himself upright with one arm. Better go’n see the cap’n.

Be seein ya, Willie says.


The boat chugging slowly into the harbour, the water full of plastic and engine oil and algae as it passed the fisherman’s cooperative.

He disembarks and walks through the docks and out onto the street. Ignored by the hawkers and marketmen who flap their hands and cry out at the tourists. Following the sign for the bus station. Small boys launch bottle rockets, their detonations burst and break the still of morning.

Willie joins the queue for the ticket kiosk. The Malay selling tickets smiles at him. Wishes him a pleasant trip.

He walks back out into the burning day’s light and heads down the waterfront to the bus shelter. He stands in the shade and sweats. Across the street a cat is dragging an iguana by the throat. The lizard’s blood and bowel glistens in the sunlight.

Dirty bastard, Willie mutters.

Women cross the bridge toward the harbour, baskets of confectionery upon their heads. A mestizo approaches the shelter, him, muttering in a ragged grey jacket.

The line won’t hold sah, no sah. Got pay out that reel sah. Repeating his phrases like a mantra. Reeking of ammonia.

Willie turned away slowly, watched the water. A heavy diesel motor roared among the warehouses. When the bus came into sight he raised his arm.

He climbed inside and handed out his ticket.

Another one goin up for the festival eh?

Something like that, Willie said quickly.

You know you gone have to spend a night up there at Ipales first? Willie nodded.

Be about noon before your connecting bus gets there, the driver said.

That’s okay man, Willie said.

He took a seat under the rattling air conditioner. The window flecked with grime. Dead bluebottles roasting slowly in the rubber sill.

The bus rattled out of the port and through the city and north across the flat low country. Sugar cane bent to the ocean breeze. Past a municipal graveyard. The pacific in flashes of azure between the mausoleums.

Willie shut his eyes, tried to sleep. A fat, tanned man sat in the seat across from him, his narrow wife dwarfed beside him.

Couldn’t snag an ADO, the man said.

Willie opened his eyes slowly.

Have to make do’n slum it.

Willie grunted.

First communion, up the coast. Arlie’s sister’s kid.

The wife leaned out from behind the man and showed teeth, a smile.

Willie, roused now, nodded. Whereabouts?

Up in Sarabia. Never had to bring no passport to no communion before, the man said and he laughed. But that’s Mexicans ain’t it. His immense wrist watch rattling with his laughter.

Willie slept. The phone shrilling in the dead black heat of the cabin. A voice is telling him.

His own voice saying I can’t understand you.

They ran me out of there Willie.


Ran me out of there. Where I found her, man.

Found who?

Her Willie, her. I seen her.

What? Where are you?

Listen to me now Willie. This is hard to say out loud. Busted jaw or not. She’s here.


Up near Estrilita.

She’s with you now? Put her on. Where’d you say?

No, no. Willie. Just be quiet now and listen to me man. I, I tried to get her away, from where she was workin. She wouldn’t come with me. We got into a shoutin match. Couple of her friends kicked shit outta me man. Tried to kick my head loose of my neck. I dunno how to say this to you Willie.

Tell me.

She’s working. One of them houses.

Houses? What houses?

A bordello. I’m sorry. I couldn’t get her to leave. I’m sorry Willie. The bastids broke a bottle over my head.

Willie’s throat had gone dry. He sat down heavily in the darkness. He heard the other man spit and spit as if he was drooling and Willie realised it was blood he was spitting.

Ok, Willie said. Where are you?

Two towns over. On the Mexican side. They told me they’d bury me if they seen me again. I had to get out in a hurry. Cheap pimps.

How long can you stay there? I’ll be over on the first boat.

I gonna see a doctor soon as it’s light. Then I gotta get back on the road. Get that load moved. I’d stay waitin for you if I only could man.

Willie took a deep breath. I know that. Estrelita? Gimme the name of the place there.

Then he had thanked the other man and hung up and again the phone began its shrill peal until the child’s hand on his arm woke him.

Peanuts, cashews, bananas?

The girl’s eyes like small pebbles in the green glow of the bus’ emergency light.

No, thank you, Willie said but the girl had already passed down the aisle. The drivers had changed. They must be close to the border. He pressed his passport with his fingers and then he shut his eyes again.

The fat man lolled in his seat like seaweed, his legs in the aisle twitching occasionally. He was snoring loudly. A dry rattling breath that ended each time in a frantic gasp for air. Still the man slept.

Willie opened his eyes. They were travelling down empty streets lit only by the bus' headlights. Out on the hillside a small island of halogen like pinpoints of hope in the darkness. The road ever winding. Past bare granite walls, the road cut down into the very bedrock. 2:47 by the conductors clock. Sorrow welling in his heart. Racked by sleeplessness. The rocky country filled him with dread. Raw with the darkness of the hour and the darkness beyond the bus lights. The canyon walls had closed in again, bonewhite in the headlights. He thought of her face painted up and smiling and he stifled an urge to scream.

He sat forward, cold and sweating and racked with remorse for the blood begotten him, that was never his own, was merely held on pledge, a weak, borrowed thing, diluted between the walls of his faint heart, older, older than him and older yet than the blank rock of these hills and he could do nothing but detest it.

He got up and struggled down to the small water closet, opening the door to a rush of mountain air. The country beyond the frosted window passing under the blackness of a vulture’s wing. The rattle of small bones in a palm, nothing good promised by the sound of it. He splashed the rank tepid water on his face, felt it soak into his shirt collar. Afraid to meet his own eyes in the chrome jailhouse mirror. There is nowhere to look.

He lurched out of the toilet and moved down the aisle to the driver.

Hey, he croaked. Hey. Brother.

The driver didn’t turn his head. Hmm?

How much more to Ipales? Offhand?

The driver glanced at the clock then back to the road. Supposed to get there after four, he said.

Thanks, Willie said. He clambered back to his seat, waking a sleeping mother who hissed at him.


Standing in the cold mountain air, long after the bus was gone. A desolate strip of main street, lit by three miscoloured streetlights. No sound of the living. Willie walked the dusty street, his teeth rattling. He turned down a side street when he saw the dim neon of a hotel sign.

He knocked for a half hour before a porter appeared.

English? Espanol?

English, Willie said.

You don’t have you a reservation, the man said. His breath rank with sleep.

No, Willie said.

I know. Else we’d be open waiting on you. The porter yawned. Goddamn.

You got any room? Much for’a night?

Lemme check, the porter said and he turned away muttering. Mother of God what an hour to pull a feller out of bed.


He sat on the worn linen bedsheet and untied his boots. A narrow and constant vein of ants on the wall. The mismatched drapes left a quarter inch of the windowpane uncovered. The red hotel sign throbbed a hellish light into the room. He kicked his boots off and lay back on the covers. Dog tired.

He slept.

He woke before sunrise. The lobby doors were locked. He found the porter sleeping behind the counter. Willie pressed the bell until the man woke.

You again? Mother of God, there’s no goddamn rest for a sinner in this place. What now?

I just need you to open y’door there.

Christ. Gimme a goddamned minute to open my eyes wouldja. You don’t want the breakfast?

No, no, Willie said. I need to be getting on.

I don’t know what to do about the breakfast then. You paid for breakfast when you bought the room.

Keep the breakfast, Willie said. Feed it to the dogs. Eat it y’self. Just open the door.

The man took up a huge ring of keys from a hook behind the counter and grumbling made his way to the door. Trying them in the lock, muttering curses with each try.

Mist sank from the mountain peaks and sailed slowly through the empty village street. Willie started down the street, shivering in his worn denim jacket.

He was a half mile out of the town when he heard the truck on the road behind him. He put out his thumb.

The truck almost passing him before it rolled to a halt. The man at the wheel waved him to the truckbed without a word. Willie hopped aboard and shoved aside a crate of avocados. He tapped the glass of the cab and then he sank down out of the morning chill, his hands buried in his armpits as the truck took off.


When he saw the sign for Estrelita he tapped his ringfinger on the roof until the driver pulled in. Willie hopped out, shouted his thanks.

A crowd of mangy dogs howled at him on the outskirts and he moved through their gathering like an exile returned for punishment.

An all-night café had put out its lights and a waiter was positioning a sign with the day menu outside the door.

Buenos, Willie said as he went inside.

The counterwoman nodded at him. Buenos señor. Español? No?

No mucho, Willie said. Lo siento.

The counterwoman smiled stiffly at him. To drink?

Por favor. Café negro.

Sí, momento. Necesito asar mas granos. She gestured to the coffee machine.

That’s ok, Willie said. Sí. Sí.

She nodded. There is come the festival. In the night.

That’s ok too señora. Got nothing but time.


He roamed the backroads until sundown. Kicking stones in the dirt streets. The sun’s disappearance brief, the red blush of the sky swallowed by swift darkness. The streets filled with a thousand sounds. Firecrackers and cheers and breaking glass. Somewhere a brass band warming up.

He had found the place in the daylight and he had passed and approached it from every possible direction. Hoving to it as if it were Polaris.

Now he stood in a doorway across the street, watching. A mass of candlelight winking in the upper windows. Women with painted faces sat amid the flames, fanning themselves placidly. Her face was not among them.

Three men stepped past Willie, one of them belching loudly as the others sniggered. Groups of men were beginning to come down the street, in twos, in threes, clutching beer bottles and talking constantly or whispering hurriedly.

He stopped at a tienda and paid for a litre of beer and headed for the greenery of the plaza. Vultures clustered over the church roof gutters. He sat on a bench behind the sacristy, regarding the bottle. His hands trembled. A hard thing to do, drunk or not.


He knocked and was admitted by a pair of spectacled eyes behind a grille.

Come come amigo.

The bouncer stood to one side and Willie entered. The air muddied with cheap perfume and stale beer and stale semen. A chandelier buried under the wax of countless candles that dripped anew upon the worn bare floorboards. And now he stood at the small bar with several other men. Long shadows everywhere. A great sheet of ragged red velvet was strung up behind the bar.

Sí, the barman said. Whiskey or women?

A woman, Willie croaked.

Inglés? Come to the right place granddad. The barman lifted his eyes from the tap now and made a study of this new patron. Which you like?

Black woman, Willie said. Negra. Lo mismo uh, que me.

You been here before?


No granddad, I don’t see you before. The barman whistled and a small boy came running from somewhere dark behind the bar. Buscar para la chica negrita arriba. Quieren ella aquí.


Sí, the barman said. Chantel.

The boy disappeared again, the sound of his bare feet slapping timber somewhere in the dark bowels of the whorehouse.

Willie spread his hands on the bar. As if he might be sent reeling at any minute. The beer fizzed in his stomach. An acid at work inside of him.

The sound of the boy’s bare feet and then the boy himself appeared. Whispered into the barman’s ear. Disappeared again.

The barman placed the bottle he was holding below the bar and when his hand came back up he was holding a length of steel pipe.

Time to vayas granddad.

Willie had backed away from the bar. I’m at the Emperador. Will you tell her that? El Emperador.

You been told nice granddad.

Willie felt his arms seized and he was being hauled backwards and thrown in the street before he could struggle. He got on his feet and then he walked the block bellowing her name. The bouncer watched him from the doorway. Then he shrugged and went back inside.

Children had gathered to laugh at him. Willie turned to snarl at them until he recognised the face of the barefoot boy among them.

Wait, Willie said. Wait. He peeled a bill from his pocketbook. Hablas inglés?

The boy nodded.

If you get word to her, I give you some more of this. I only need a few minutes. She sells her time, I’ll pay her for it if she asks. He passed the boy a couple of pesos and snatched the boy at the wrist. You’ll tell her? Tú entiendes?

The boy nodded, frightened.

En el emperador. Sí?

Sí, the boy whispered.

Willie cast the boy loose and staggered down an alley, weeping.


And what else’d your friend tell you?

She had come to see him in his room. Turned out in a high necked Sunday blue dress. As if she were lunching with a bishop. She sat in the cheap wicker chair with her pearl rimmed purse upon her lap.

He said you had your pimp friends beat him.

That right? She asked without smiling.

He told me he tried getting you outta that, that place.

Jesus. Your old trucker buddies. That creases me up. He didn’t tell you he spent the weekend with me, did he? That he paid for me? Paid to have me to himself. For two days. He only left the room to eat and shit. Did he tell that part of it? I bet no. He was with me the whole weekend straight and then he walked out whistling.

You’re a goddamned liar.

They beat him because he tried leavin without payin his tab.

That’s a lie. That’s just a lie.

It’s how come they bust him up so bad.

No, Willie whispered. No.

You think it’s good for business? Them doing that, if there’s no money on the line?

Willie was silent now.

No, she said. You know it’s true.

I can’t, Willie said. He grasped the radiator, steadied himself upon it. The bottom running out of everything. No stemming it. Like a bad wound.

You can believe what you want, Chantel said. But you just listen to me now. You don’t own me. You never owned me. No more than you could own the wind. No more’n any man will ever own me.

Willie’s mouth had gone dry. That all you come to say?

That’s all I come to say, she said.

Please girl, Willie said. Just think for a minute.

No. The thinking is done. And I know you crafty. I know you could wile me back an you could beat me, bring me back to that stinkin goddamn shack. But I’d get away again. I won’t be nobody’s property. I wasn’t born to serve you. I wasn’t born to serve nobody.

Jesus Christ, Willie whispered.

I serve my own self, she said. Matter what anybody say. This work isn’t bad what you think. The kinder ones bring me books. Boss lady, she’s kind, deals square. I’m my own person now. I choose it. Hear me? I choose. Do you hear?

Willie sat on the bed and put his head into his hands. His fingertips had turned pale where they pressed his temple.

That’s all I come to say, she said.

He tried to speak but the only sound he made was a dry gasp.

She stood up and dusted her lap and reached out to touch his shoulder. I’ll say goodbye now. Goodbye father, she said. Be kind to yourself.


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