I had wandered far into southern Mexico until the village of San Idro rose out of a hovering haze. A sleepy town in the hilly uplands of Oaxaca that the tourists never marked on their guidebooks and the drug cartels wouldn’t have bothered over, not even for free samples from the local talent. A post office but spotty cell service. A white stucco church with a bell tower. A decent cantina, and the only place with Wi-Fi, while Radio La Comadre out of Orizaba–pronounced O-reet-zaaaaaaaaah-ba–trickled from a speaker in the corner. Outside, stray goats wandered over small farms, and pecking chickens strutted in the street.

A good enough place to finish the book. My agent had gotten me a six month extension, God bless her, now halfway gone. If I couldn’t finish it here…
Perish the thought. No choice.
Even the town’s name wasn’t complete. San Idro. There were twenty places in Mexico named after San Isidro, the patron saint of farmers and day laborers–plenty of those south of the border. But San Idro couldn’t even afford the extra "si," the secret "yes" inside Isidro to make the peasants sainted.
A typo of a town.
Rocky fields lay across a plain and a river below ended in the swampy delta of a muddy lake. The burros plodded sadly before my veranda, no tractors in the fields. I wrote, ignoring them. Ate at the cantina and listened to the radio in the background. Drank mescal and sucked on limes. Then just sugared lime juice on ice. In two months I was ready to leave.
It was then I met the crocodile.
Almost every day I went down to the shallow river, casting out a fishing line and bringing a few pages to polish as the cork bobbed. Near my shady tree slept the carved ruins of a temple. A huge stone face gazed with all-knowing calm over the slow water and into eternity, limestone torn from some forgotten mountain. The nameless god. You saw the same almond eyes and generous lips in the village today. Tangled vines crawled across the placid face making the seamless brow seem thoughtful.
As the afternoon grew old, a boy riding a burro lazily made his way along the far bank, not twenty yards off. He waved to me and I waved back. It was then that the crocodile raised its head out of a lush corner of the bank, where it had been basking in the sun–totally camouflaged in plain sight. The dragon was broad and slow and stupid. With red glass eyes which thought little and felt less.
The burro snorted as the boy dug in his heels and flicked his switch. But instead of trotting off, the burro turned towards the water. The crocodile nodded its leathery head this way and that as if pondering which one of us to take. The fool with the fishing pole or the kid on the donkey. Without any presence of mind, except for my own worthless skin, I scrambled up the ruined temple and clung to the stone face. Feet entwined in vines and my eyes sprang tears like a child clutching its mother’s throat. I had idiotically brought the fishing pole with me and threw it away in disgust.
This left only the boy on the burro across the stream. The crocodile smiled, made his decision and splashed into the water, paddled like mad and waddled with stunning speed up the bank. The boy’s face turned a sort of milky yellow. He frantically tried to spur the balky burro along. Useless as usual, I clung to my perch, gutlessly staring, wishing I could only close my eyes.
That’s when the man appeared. He wore common leather chaps, a stained sombrero and a red kerchief twisted around his neck. He carried a large bore single-action rifle, slung over his shoulder. He had the arrogant strut of a Zapatista, but didn’t bother covering his head with one of those ridiculous balaclavas and his face was not of the village. Not one I recognized.
He glanced up at the stone temple as he passed below and in that moment I felt the whole weight of his mind, felt him judging my relative worth–damn little–then dismiss it from thought. He threw me a casual salute as he rambled onto the rocks by the water’s edge. Languidly he unslung the rifle, bringing it to bear; he sent a shot over the croc’s snout to get its attention. Pebbles ricocheted on the dragon’s hide and the thing cranked its leathery head around to face the man across the stream.
Quietly and deliberately the man chambered another round with a cartridge from his vest pocket; loading carefully and methodically as if he had all the time in the world. Was there a touch of hubris in that warning shot? Did the man want his enemy to know who killed him? Impossible to say. The croc plodded down the bank with all due speed; first into the stream, then across the water, tail slithering behind.
The man brought the gun to his shoulder as before and squeezed the trigger. There was the impotent soft click of a misfire–and in that sudden silence I heard my stomach shudder. The man opened his eyes wide in cruel disbelief; the rifle writhed in his grasp as he fumbled with the bolt.
In a cunning flash of insight, the croc sensed his advantage. The animal climbed onto the near bank and leapt on all four legs–running. The man ran too, but the big croc hit him at the knees, dragging him down. Then the hard scaly dragon embraced the soft human body and began to feed. A scream fell to a feeble protest and then gurgles before…silence.
The burro snorted and bolted; me too, wriggling down from my perch while the croc was gorging. Running flat out. The last thing I remembered was an empty sombrero and a limp red kerchief while the beast grunted with glassy-eyed pleasure and the birds on the temple face chirped brightly in the sun.
At the top of the slope I searched frantically for the boy and the burro on the far side of the river, but they were nowhere to be seen. Below, the swampy patches of jungle embraced the forgotten god while behind me at three points of the compass the stony flats and worn fields of San Idro with its village church tower shimmered in the breeze.
I staggered into the cantina like a blind man on bad liquor; then sagged against the bar. A pack of almond-eyed faces turned from their laptops and dominos. The tavern keeper took a shot glass off a stack, wiped it out and set it on the bar as though he knew exactly what was good for me. I pushed the glass away with the back of my hand and spilled out my tale: the boy, the burro, the man, the gun, the croc–
To a silent audience; impassive faces stared mutely back. I tried to rouse them. Pleading at first, then cursing. Finally begging. If you learn nothing in Mexico, learn to beg fluently. Didn’t even one of them want to help?
But the only answer I got was the stony stares of brown-faced men. And I thought a thousand racist things.
The tavern keep slid the shot glass back to my hand and doled his medicine. He poured it knowingly, a wise man’s cure for what ailed you, with a touch of pity in his eyes. El Autor. Loco Americano. The crazy gringo writer. Muy mucho sol. Too much sun.
My shaky hand reached weakly for the shot, but at the last my nerves got the better of us both. The fingers twitched and knocked over the glass. Mescal spread silently across the bar. The passive faces stared wordlessly after me as I groped out the door and into the deserted street.
The priest of San Idro knelt behind the church on his hands and knees as he methodically pulled weeds from the dirt of his garden. Full heads of green lettuce grinned from the ground, while golden tomatoes and bright red peppers chuckled from their vines. He rose in alarm as he saw my face and led me to a stone bench to sit in the shade of the church wall like a sick man.
He listened as the others had. Then he stroked his face without speaking for some time. At last he said, "I’ll go back down there with you, if you want." He shrugged, at a loss for words. "If you want. But–"
"Too late?" I asked.
"Yes, but not the way you think," he agreed quietly. "We can go down to the river, of course–but I’ll tell you, this part of the country was hunted clean of the crocodile a hundred years ago."
The priest had led us into the cool seclusion of the church and gave me a drink from a plastic squeeze-bottle with a picture of snow-clad mountains and a rushing icy stream. Everything this country lacked.
"The Idro family once owned this land. Everything you see. The peasants tell the story of their greatest Patriarch. One day when Don Idro was out hunting by the Old Stones, he gave his life to save his son. It was his boy who built this church."
The priest’s smooth, sun-tanned hand patted the back of the pew. And I was suddenly struck by the dragon once more. Every part of the church was ornamented with crocodile. Croc claws on the feet of the pews, croc hides on the armrests. The great doors bound in croc leather. Even the holy water urn, a great clay bowl, embedded with croc teeth.
"No, no more cocodrilo," the priest said sadly. "And perhaps we bear some guilt for that…we let him revel in his revenge. No one with the courage to tell him ‘enough’. Maybe that’s why this town is no longer on the maps."
It was then that I noticed the worn sombrero and red kerchief hanging near the altar; although I’d known they were there for some time–decaying artifacts in a dry old Spanish church. And in a shadowy niche stood Christ on the Cross–hanging from a large bore, single-action rifle. Its pitted stock and blue steel barrel made the cross-piece, the patibulum for the son of God.
Something told me the boy on the burro, the Son of San Idro, had repaired his father’s gun so it would fire again. Repaired it so he could use it every day; every day for the rest of his life. Meet that deadly moment just as his father had. Fire the gun again and again with mechanical reliability, until he wiped out the debt he owed the man who saved his life. A kind of immortal vengeance, leaving behind the wisp of ghostly memory under the gaze of a dead god from a nameless temple you only read about in books.
"Yes, I see," I said, and thrust the empty bottle back into his hand. "Thanks for the drink."
I strayed aimlessly back to my veranda. Too ashamed to show my white face in the cantina and knowing full well I was out of cigarettes and there wasn’t even a bottle in the house. At least no one had laughed at my unlikely tale.
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