The Skinny and the Mule

Pietro Valdez was having a bad morning.   Bad mornings usually found him leaning against Enzo’s doorpost, beneath the shade of his friend’s straw roof, and this morning was no exception.  Here he could rest, draw on a self-rolled cigarette, and contemplate the injustices that existed in the world.  Inevitably, he would reach the same conclusion as always; that every one of those injustices was stacked against him.

So, maybe he had been a little late setting his nets in the river that morning – just a little, tiny bit late.  What did it matter?  Pietro had a problem.  His whole village had a problem.  No matter how early he, or anyone else who fished the river should rise from their beds, Rodrigo – Bang-Sticks Rodrigo – would take all the best fish!  Pietro stared along the river bank towards Rodrigo’s moored boat with half-lowered eyes, his head full of vengeance. Of course, Rodrigo’s little dock was busy; Luca, Bang-Sticks’ son and his friend Raul were boxing Rodrigo’s catch, loading it into a dilapidated but durable truck that would take it to market.  In the warehouse behind the dock Luiza and Yasmin, Marco’s two girls, would be preparing more fish for drying.

Feeling a pat on his shoulder, Pietro turned to discover Enzo, his friend, had sidled out of his hut to lean against the other door post.  Pietro passed his cigarette to Enzo.

“Business is good.”  Enzo commented, sharing Pietro’s thoughts.

“Good!”  Pietro spat his ire into the dust.  “Good!  That bastardo was at the eddy pool this morning, blowing up half the fish in the river.  What is left?”     Pietro’s nets had come in empty, again.  So!  There was no money, there was no food.  Luana, his wife, could hurt him when she got this mad.  Again!  She had thrown a pot at him and today – he rubbed his shoulder ruefully – she had not missed.

“Matters,” He muttered; “Cannot rest.”

Enzo grunted.   “I do not see what you can do.  Rodrigo has a deal with Carlos Eduardo, Carlos Eduardo gets him his sticks of dynamite in return for thirty percent of the catch.  It is business.  Don’t say you wouldn’t have done the same deal if you’d thought of it first.”

Pietro shook his head.   “He dynamites the fish!   Soon there will be no fish at all in the river, then what does the village do?   What does Thales do?  What does Marco do?”

“Marco goes to work for Carlos Eduardo.  Already he is thinking about it.  I talked with him yesterday.”  Enzo answered.  “I am thinking of it myself.  Maybe you should.”

“I, Pietro Valdez, work for a gangster who grows fields of Marijuana?   What does that make me?”

“Rich?  It is very good Marijuana.”

“Or dead.  Carlos Eduardo is a very nasty man.  His henchmen are very fond of guns.”  Pietro muttered.  “No, I am a fisherman, not a grower of drugs.  I want to feed people, not send them crazy.”

Thoroughly subdued, Pietro fell silent, and together the two men shared their one cigarette, brushing flies away from their faces as they contemplated the vast waters of the river in the morning heat.   In such mood an hour might easily pass without either moving or speaking a word, but today Pietro’s attention was drawn to a small commotion behind Bang-Sticks dock, where Rodrigo’s son Luca was preparing for his trip to the market in Almeres, fifty kilometres away.

“What is that?”

“That?”   Enzo replied.  “That is trouble, my friend.”

A girl dressed minimally in shorts and a t-shirt was attempting to talk to Luca, with limited  success.  She might have been, as Pietro judged, no older than twenty-four or twenty-five years, and clearly her attempts at flirtation were falling on stony ground.  Luca was wiser than his years, and in Pietro’s closely guarded opinion, more interested in Raul than in female company.  This was an insult he was saving for that special argument with ‘Bang-Sticks’, when the opportunity eventually arrived.

“She is pretty girl.”  Pietro observed.

“She is a ‘Skinny Girl’.  Keep away!”  Enzo warned.

“That may be difficult.  She is coming towards us.”

The girl had abandoned her charm offensive on Luca, and was striding along the riverbank in their direction.  Pietro was familiar with the ‘Skinny Girl’ appellation, of course:  everyone knew it.   A very astute group of young women had banded together in the last three seasons with the sole purpose of taking over the drugs trade on the river.  Using their natural abilities to charm they were picking off owners of small to middle-sized fazendas one by one, trusting in the farmers’ deference towards women.  Once they found a way into that plain farmer’s bed, though, the women showed no such compunction, and shot them dead at the first opportunity.   So far, they had made no attempt to unseat any of the larger drug barons, bigger players unlikely to fall for their fatal game.  Knowing their depth, and in regions where police presence was rare, they were thriving happily on the proceeds of farms like the one owned by Carlos Eduardo.   Lecherous to a fault, Carlos Eduardo, Pietro thought as he watched the approaching girl’s fluid, hip-swinging gait, would be easy meat.  Nevertheless…

“You have a boat!”  Her voice was sweet, almost a song, and her teeth were many and incredibly white.  She flashed her dark, Hispanic eyes at Pietro.  “A boat with a big, big motor.   That man Luca says”…  She stopped directly in front of Pietro, so close he felt the warm whisper of her breath.  “You have a big, big motor, yes?”

Pietro was wrong-footed by the girl’s proximity.     “I suppose so.”  He muttered.  No matter that Enzo growled a warning, his friend was already in the web.  “You want my boat?”

“I need your boat, Pietro, you will help me, I know!   You are Pietro, yes?  You are a generous man, everybody knows Pietro.”

“You asked Luca.  What’s wrong with Luca’s boat?”

“Luca?  He has such small motor.”  The girl shook her head sadly, holding up a thumb and forefinger to reinforce her point.  “Once in a month only, down the river to Minacura!  That’s two days each way.  Just you and me,  two days on the river one way, two days back.  You and me, alone, eh, Pietro?”   Her voice lowered suggestively.  “Ah, but can I trust you?  I hope I can trust you!”

Enzo snorted.  Pietro was experiencing sensations incompatible with the early hour and his abiding sense of grievance.  Reason had to prevail.  “What’s in it for me?”  He demanded.

“What is in it?  What is in it??”  The girl’s eyes glittered.  “You want money too?”

“I have expenses.”

“It is alright, I tease you!  Of course there is money.  I have done a deal with Carlos Eduardo.  It is a very good deal.  He is very generous man.  Your boat, it will be loaded with the very best merchandise!  Each run, 150 Real!  Think what you can do with 150 Real!”

“Two hundred.”  Pietro wondered what this girl had done for Carlos Eduardo that could have aroused his generosity.  “I want two hundred.”

“Oh, Pietro; so greedy!  One-Seventy-five!”

“You buy the fuel.”

“Agreed!”  The girl reached up and stroked Pietro’s cheek with long, elegant fingers.  “There are police on the river so we travel by night.  We will be such good companions!  Tonight, eight o’clock, okay?”

“Tonight?”

“Of course!  Why not?”

Pietro was thinking of Luana and the necessity for explanations which accounted for a number of reasons why not.  But money was money, and a cash argument would weigh heavily with his wife, as long as he kept her away from his travelling companion.

Eight o’clock that evening found Pietro and his boat moored up on a stretch of river tributary that adjoined Carlos Eduardo’s ranch.   The girl, whose name had proved to be Adriana, materialised rapidly from the darkness where forest bordered the water, followed by Paolo, Carlos Eduardo’s ostler.   Both were laden with heavy bales wrapped in waterproof plastic, which they dumped unceremoniously into the boat.   Pietro could see that Paolo was ill at ease.  He kept looking up and down the river, and seemed anxious not to make a noise.  No sooner had the first lot of bales been loaded than the pair vanished again, leaving Pietro to distribute his unexpectedly heavy cargo as evenly as he might.  Satisfied, he rolled a cigarette, drawing contented smoke as he wondered how easily Carlos Eduardo had fallen for Adriana’s  ploys.  Eventually, he supposed, the whole village must learn to fear Adriana and her ‘Skinny Girls’ as much as they had feared Carlos Eduardo. If so, at least one advantage was his: he had a ‘big motor’.   

Had he noticed the raised voices in the distance?   What was the clamour about?

Paolo came bursting out of the trees, loaded with yet more bales.  Adriana, similarly burdened, was close behind him.

“Come!  We load this.”

The shouting was not so distant any more.  The voices were angry.

“All this?”  Pietro protested.  “It is too much!  We won’t get all this through the gorge!”  But the bales were already stacked, on top of those he had already distributed.  Adriana was specific.  “We leave now!   Don’t start the motor!”

Pietro recognised the ingredients of a disaster immediately, but his sense of self-preservation persuaded him this was the wrong place to ask questions, so he did as he was told.  He cast off his dangerously unstable boat swiftly, as Adriana slipped into the prow, and Paolo melted back into the trees.  As he turned into the current he could hear the crashing of angry feet in the undergrowth.  It occurred to him that maybe Carlos Eduardo was not so gullible, after all.

In the darkness Adriana’s ashen face was almost luminous.  “What do we do?”  She cried, clearly no longer in command.  “Tell me, what do we do?”

A gun discharged in a burst of venom from somewhere close by.  Bullets snicked off the water.  

“We start the motor!”   Pietro replied quietly.   “Stay down, and do not say my name!”

                                                                  #

“We have lost them, yes?”  Adriana hissed.

An hour had elapsed, in which time neither the owner of the boat nor his young companion had spoken.   Upon reaching the point where their tributary joined the main river, Pietro had turned upstream.  After a half kilometre battling the current he had tied off his boat at a place where the trees overhung the water, concealing them from view.

“Yes, for now.  We are fortunate they had no boats moored nearby.  They will be hunting for us downstream, thinking we are making for Minacura.”

Adriana sniffed.  “This is no use.  If we go to Minacura, we will be following them.  Sooner or later we must meet.”

“This boat wouldn’t make Minacura anyway, with so heavy a cargo;”   Pietro told her.  “Our best bet is to meet up with your gang somewhere further upstream.  Maybe you should ‘phone them now?”  His comment met with silence.  “That’s a good idea, yes?”

Adriana said:  “What ‘gang’?”

“Why, the ‘Skinny Girls’.  The Skinny Girls gang.”

“I am not skinny girl!  I have nice figure, don’t you think?”

A cold hand grasped Pietro’s heart.  “Wait a minute!  You are not a ‘Skinny Girl’?”

“No.  I am a student.”  Adriana answered proudly.  “I am at university in Brazilia – third year.”

“Then this was – what?   You were trying to steal from Carlos Eduardo on your own?  No gang to help you?”

“Paolo, he helped me.”  Adriana grinned.  “He was very helpful!   And when we get these bales to Minacura and we sell them I shall be very rich and I shall be able to pay for my last year’s tuition.  You help me, Pietro.  Then you can be rich, too!” Pietro put his head in his hands.  “You.  Brave man with big motor – what is wrong with you?”

“Wait a minute!  You made your deal with Paolo?  You said your deal was with Carlos Eduardo, Adriana!”

“So?  I tried, but Eduardo, he is fat man, and he is very drunk.  So Paolo, he does dealing for me.  I am very nice to Paolo, and he does me good deal.   What is wrong?”

“Just this.   My boat is filled with Eduardo’s property, not Paolo’s.  Paolo has no property.  My boat is overloaded, it will not pass the fast water in the gorge on the way to Minacura.  All right, maybe we throw some Marijuana in the river, then we have a chance; but drunk or sober Carlos Eduardo is no fool.  Right now he is on his cell phone to his buyer in Minacura to tell him what has happened.  He is on his cell phone to police in Minacura (who he pays) to tell them what has happened.  Adriana, you cannot just sell marijuana on this river, you need connections.  You need to make deals, you need time to build up trust!   Right now, we show ourselves even five kilometres down river with this stuff and we are dead.”

Adriana fell quiet for a moment before she said unsteadily.  “I have done things for this a respectable girl should not do.  I cannot fail – I cannot have done what I have done for nothing, for no reason.  We can do it.  We will do it.”

“No, Adriana.  You can’t, and we won’t.”

 “Then what can we do?”

                                                                  #

“Why are you out so early?”  Enzo was surprised to discover Pietro busy with his nets.  “Can’t you sleep, my friend?”

Pietro smirked.   “Some nights I feel I have not been to bed.”

Enzo glanced cunningly at him. “Ah, the girl.  But you did not make the trip with her, no?”

“Wiser counsels prevailed, Enzo.”   The fisherman’s eyes were fixed upon Rodrigo’s dock, further up the river bank.  “I am a married man.”

“But still…”  Enzo followed Pietro’s gaze.  “Bang-Sticks is not out yet.  If you hurry…”

“Exactly.”  Both men were now watching as Rodrigo, appearing by his behaviour to be unusually agitated, shouted and gesticulated at a defensive-looking Luca.  They were too far away to hear what was said, but far enough to see two jeeps approaching Rodrigo’s warehouse from the landward side.  Carlos Eduardo was being driven in one, in the other were two extremely large bodyguards, both armed with semi-automatic rifles.

Pietro had known they would come, and in his view the timing could not have been better.  A stranger girl could not be seen talking to anyone in a village as small as his without arousing suspicion, especially if that girl intended to steal part of the local drugs baron’s harvest.   Adriana had been talking to Luca just yesterday, so it was obvious where Carlos Eduardo would look. 

Naturally,  since Adriana had been seen with Pietro too, he had no doubt Carlos Eduardo would want to follow that up – he was not worried.  He had nothing to hide, as long as no-one saw the two bullet holes in his boat.  As for Adriana, she was well on her way back to her university by now, chastened by her experience and no richer than before, but unhurt.  And she was getting a good start on Carlos which would get better, the longer he was detained by the discovery of his marijuana, stashed as they had left it last night, in Rodrigo’s warehouse.   

Rodrigo?   Well, those bales of drugs were still intact, so he would count himself lucky if he survived with only a little roughing up, but Pietro was sure he would get no more dynamite. 

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

For God’s Sake, Why???

For anyone who doesn’t already know of it, I would like to introduce this link:   http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/

For anyone who would rather not look, I would like to reveal these headline statistics:

The total number of gun-related incidents in 2016 (i.e. last six months)      25, 296

The total number of deaths                                                                                               6,495

The total number of injuries                                                                                            13,392

Deaths of children below the age of twelve                                                                        277

 

I am a foreigner, of course.  I can’t be expected to understand why every American should have the constitutional right to own a firearm, in case his national government attacks him, or whatever.  I don’t particularly want to achieve that depth of understanding, because to me that would mean the pursuit of a disturbingly jaundiced path of reasoning with only one very dark destination.  I have never wanted the right to kill.   The thought that I could kill a child appals me.

I do clearly understand that the NRA represents commercial interests whose trade is in death.  I do see that this organisation sanctions the totally inappropriate sale of automatic weapons to private individuals for no other reason than the added profit a more expensive weapon can produce. 

This, too, I understand.  The perpetrators of these horrendous crimes are almost exclusively male.  There is some barbaric instinct lurking in the hairy back corners of the primeval mind that triggers whenever a young male feels worsted, whether it be merely by someone arrogantly dismissing them, or flashing past them in a faster car, or more profoundly by stirring religious fervour in some way.  The resultant disproportionate fury will always be part of our nature, it cannot ever be entirely eliminated, but how it manifests itself can be controlled.  Knives are bad, but they are merciful when compared to a gun.

Sadly, it seems that the squatting toads of Congress are equally immovable.  The NRA ensures their position.  Therefore, the pressure to make things change must come from below; and, as it seems to me, the pressure has to come from women.   The same selfless determination that gave women the vote back in that heady century of change when all things of today began, now has to be devoted to gun control.

Now you’re going to think I’m mad.  I probably am.

Long, long ago a Greek playwright wrote a comedy called Lysistrata.  Aristophanes’ plot concerned women tired of the constant warfare waged by their men-folk and forced change by locking themselves in the Acropolis and refusing them sex.  

Ridiculous?   Okay.  

Effective?  Well, maybe.

But think how a change in social attitudes has brought about the ostracism of smoking as a social habit?   See how the culture of physical fitness and diet is beginning to attack obesity?  These small cudgels can be wielded so effectively in a media-aware society, and it is always encouraging to see their force used for good.

If women could persuade themselves to actively oppose the possession of arms – if the firearm were consigned to the garage, if it was uncivilized, not to say primitive, to be seen bearing a weapon – if the considerable talents of cartoonists could be unleashed upon the spotty punk with the weapon so much larger than his natural appendage, public perceptions would alter. 

Social pressure, whether ostracism, ridicule, or contempt; or more physical deprivation:  “Until you get rid of that gun you’re cooking your own food”, seems to me not just the best, but the only way to go.    But there, I’m just an outsider.  I don’t understand why it was so necessary to deprive 6500 people of life before they had the chance to live it.

Just think:  a little down the line the USA might have produced the Great President; the saviour of the western world – might have, if some deluded teen hadn’t shot him dead in 2016.

Maybe Aristophanes had a point?

In Memoriam – Cecil the Lion

image credit: Brent Staplekamp
image credit: Brent Staplekamp

I imagine if you were to lay Homo sapiens out upon the anthropological slab and dissect him as a species you would come up with a number of anomalies. He is an ape, yet not – we can’t be sure. He has a large brain, yet not the largest. The brains of several less versatile species are larger. His opposable thumbs have been cited incessantly as explanation for his dominance, whilst that is as likely to be explained by his upright stance and his strong tribal leanings. In large measure these are traits shared by all the greater anthropoids – the chimpanzee, the orangutan, the gorilla, and so on.

I am not an anthropologist, and this first paragraph is merely stating the patently b****ing obvious. It needs to be said, though, because apparently it is not obvious – not to a substantial slice of our kind. That strange, developed brain of ours is capable of endless self-justifications and delusions; the most poisonous of which insists that none of that first paragraph is true.

Poisonous? Well, yes, because we put that argument, in most cases, to toxic use. If we say we did not evolve naturally into our present state, but were created somehow by a superior being who – guess what – looks just like us, we can justify slaughter without conscience. We can divorce ourselves from the rest of the inhabitants of this planet and plunder their species, torture them, then finally drive them to extinction without regard to morality. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ only refers to another one of our own, doesn’t it? Animals are ‘beasts’. They have no value.

Thus it is perfectly possible to reconcile religious and moral rectitude on Sunday with a hunting expedition on Monday which might involve shooting a lion, whether or not the shooter is hungry for its meat. We can self-justify, describing the process of slaughter as a pastime, even a ‘skill’, when all we are really doing is satisfying a primitive blood-lust. Some go further; they describe this barbaric trait as ‘Sport’.

We don’t seem able to rid ourselves of a ghoulish urge to destroy. In establishing our dominance we became omnivorous. We learned to eat animal flesh when fruit and berries failed us. That was reason enough to treat a hairy mammoth like a pin cushion to bring him down, before beating his brains out with rocks, but those times are long gone. We still eat our fellow species, we still treat them in an unforgivable way. We have made some improvements, even made token gestures towards mitigating their death agonies, although, intriguingly enough, we explain our reasons as ‘improving the quality of the meat’. In the interests of ‘Sport’ though, all rules are suspended.

‘Sport’ is unique, in that it has created its own societal structure. The social elevation of the blood-thirsty is enhanced by its kill tally. Apparently a perverted status attaches itself to the trophy, to the photograph of the killer standing triumphantly over the victim. It is often considered a rite of passage. The old need for self-justification creeps back in to insist there is some sort of equality in the battle with the lion, or the charging rhino, or the mighty buffalo. Equal battle? A battalion of beaters standing close by? All those guns against a set of claws and a sense of outraged privacy is hardly a fair fight, is it, especially since we picked it in the first place?

Long ago, we as a species became lords of the earth. Infestation though we are, only Nature can unseat us, and at the last she surely will, but while we stay here we have a duty to remember we share our world with its other rightful tenants, and we should respect them, because in a time to come we may need their mercy. They would be wholly justified in showing us none.

A curious apparatus, that Homo sapiens brain. Somewhere inside it there lurks a streak of supreme arrogance that will, eventually, provide the fuse for its own destruction.