Waiting Canals – 17

Stepping into the balcony, Walters ignored the sweltering air and focused instead on the repetitious chorus of the locusts.

The surface of the canal was as black as the sky. He couldn’t see through the column of water, but he knew that there were no treasures down there, nothing he could call a treasure. When he first arrived to Memphis he had envisaged prospecting the canals and finding all sorts of riches. Maybe not gold ducats or pieces of silver, but something of value long lost under the sediment, or forgotten in some room under the water, something he could sell, that would allow him to be back on his feet again. He couldn’t recall ever finding anything worth taking to a pawn shop. But it was only a question of time, especially once he ventured on the submerged levels of abandoned buildings. He kept finding excuses not to go there, even thought those were the places where he would find the treasure that was waiting for him.

Something jerked to his right. He couldn’t see anything for a while, until his eyes detected a fishing line catching some of the moonlight. The movements of the line translated the struggles of a creature trying to escape under the water.

Walters straddled the fence that separated his balcony from the adjoining one, extended his arm and knocked on the neighbor’s window. Without waiting for an answer, he returned to his balcony and sat down, putting his feet on the table. By the time the door to the other balcony opened, he had dumped his drink and was trying to remember whether he had any other bottle of alcohol stashed anywhere in the house.

An obese man stepped out onto the other balcony. He moved slowly, except for his face, which seemed a foraign object stuck atop an underperforming body.

“Thanks, man” he said to Walters, grasping the fishing rod and diligently pulling a two-feet long catfish from the water, hitting its head against the railing with a splattering thud, throwing the fish in a basket on the ground, baiting the hook and flinging it back into the middle of the canal.

“Do you want a beer?” the neighbor asked.

Walters raised his empty glass. “Yes, please,” he said.

The neighbor required several steps to turn around on the spot, and then disappeared into his house. Many minutes later he made his way out again, holding a six pack, which he placed on the small table in his balcony. He sat down, grabbed a can and extended his arm, without moving the rest of his body. Walters had to get up and reach for the can. Back on his chair, he opened the can and swallowed several gulps of cold beer.

“That’s the third one I got today,” the neighbor said, using his eyes to point towards the basket where the catfish had landed. “I’m gonna fry them after we finish these beers. Are you still gonna tell me you ain’t interested in having some?”

“I’m afraid so. I’ve seen what they eat and I prefer not to partake on it.”

“You stubborn bastard. Oh well, more for me. I don’t really give a shit what they eat. They were still alive when I got them, weren’t they? If it didn’t kill them, it won’t kill me, ain’t that right?”

“Probably so.”

A boat approached from the left and slowly passed in front of them. They looked at it as it came and until it left. Long minutes of silence. An unexpected parade. The man on the boat, sitting by the tiller, pretended not to see them.

Even after the boat had been long gone, the two men remained quiet, drinking their beer, enjoying not thinking about anything of relevance.

“Any news?” Walters asked after accepting a second can of beer.

The neighbor turned to Walters and investigated him for a long time, as if he had never seen Walters before and he had to decide whether to trust him or not.

“Don’t know, man, things have been very weird lately. Too quiet. Kinda weird that all those protests have stopped. You don’t see many people in the streets, it’s like we are in the middle of a storm and everyone is at home, waiting until it’s safe to come out again.”

“Sounds like a truce between the methodists and the baptists.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure, man,” the neighbor said, the sweat droplets on his face wobbling like white jellyfish. “Something is cooking, that’s for sure. Detentions have been going on for while, I can tell you that. I don’t think it’s safe out there, and I think most people feel the same. There’s enough shit to be concerned about. There were all these people protesting for this and that for weeks, although my feeling is that most of them didn’t know the rules of the game, and now they are all suddenly gone, or hiding, or whatever.”

Waiting canals – 16

The last tendrils of sunset were disappearing when Walters got back to his house. The music of a distant trumpet floated in the air, mixed with a fragrant breeze. Walters couldn’t make out the source of the music, and that was reassuring. In the same way he wasn’t able to pinpoint the location of the musician, other people might not be able to know where he was now. There were hundreds of thousands of eyes in the city, and possibly none of them were focused on him.

Walters opened the door and patted the wall inside until he found the switch for the only light in his house. A naked bulb hanging from the ceiling flickered a few times but stayed on, without the strength to illuminate the corners of the main room. An animal scurried away along a wall and escaped through one of the many holes on the baseboards and flooring.

Nothing seemed to be out of place. Or missing. Walters breathed out with relief. He didn’t know what, but he had expected some unpleasantness ambushing him in the house. He didn’t have to look over his shoulder and check the area submerged in darkness to his right, but he did so anyway, not being able to stop himself. There was nobody there, or anywhere else in the house.

For Walters, the best occasions to go back and remember the details of the different events taking place during the previous hours were those in which solitude conferred security. He pulled his notebook and had already located the last entry before he sat down on the bed. “I left boat. Don’t trust anyone. I need to go back tomorrow. Prospecting canal again. Check what happened to man in canal. Dead man. He was shot dead. I need to find woman.” Walters was surprised by the fact he still had a clear image of the woman’s face in his mind. Crisp eyes, a resolute gaze, lips that didn’t seem to have been made for smiling. He couldn’t see that type of woman lying dead in a canal. He would still search for her, but he didn’t anticipate finding her dead and vulnerable. Given the choice, he preferred not to discover anything about her. Flipping to the preceding page, Walters looked for any other reference about the dead man. “Man stuck in front of tunnel, dogfrogs pulling him! Murdered! I kept his wallet.” Walters searched his pockets and found a wallet that he didn’t recall any longer. The leather was still damp. His fingers ran smoothly over the slimy surface. He didn’t need to bring the wallet close to his nose to know that it would reek of silt and decaying algae.

Walters held the wallet on his hands for a long time. He turned it over again and again, studying the double edges and each one of the stitches, hesitant to look into its contents. When he opened the two halves of the wallet it seemed unintentional, not something he had planned to do.

Encrusted on one of the two internal surfaces, a police badge shined mutely, dimmed by its short life in the canal. Walters now hurried to investigate the rest of the wallet. Some money, not much, a few forms of identification, some papers stuck together and their ink smudged, and a couple of casino chips. But the badge was the only element that seemed to breath, to retain some life of its own.

Walters scribbled swiftly in his notebook. “Wallet belongs to policeman. Robert Smyth. Baptist. Maybe it means nothing, but baptist in methodist canal.“ Reading again the previous entries, he found no mention about a gun. “Don’t recall a gun. Search for it, for anything else tomorrow,” he added to his notebook. He remembered about the red cross that had been hanging around the neck of the policeman, and the fact that he had left the cross in his bag, in Dr. Pomme’s mansion. Would anyone rummage through his bag? Would they find the cross? Would that have any consequence? What else would they find? He couldn’t remember what other compromising item he had left in his bag.

Methodically he searched again each section of the wallet, removing all contents and placing them on the bed as he encountered them. Once empty, the wallet looked like an emaciated animal covered by a saggy skin. Still searching through the different sections, he noticed a hardened spot in the middle of a leather division. Sticking a finger in a hole at the base of the division, he made contact with a metal he immediately recognized as gold. Using his finger as a hook, he extracted a golden coin. It was a lucky charm. Recently minted. One side depicted a bald eagle holding in its claws two handguns. On the other side, a triangle was composed by a catfish, a human arm, and a box turtle, in the center of the triangle a multipetaled flower hiding an eye.

Walters kissed the coin and buried it in the bottom of one of his front pockets.

The images of the red cross around the neck of the dead man, then on his hand, then inside his bag somewhere in Dr. Pomme’s mansion where anyone could find it, all those images flashed in his mind in a random succession, interspersed with an octopus snatching coins with its tentacles, and a dogfrog looking at him intently.

The bottle of bourbon shined on the bookshelf. Walters crossed the room and opened the fridge, not knowing what it would contain. His eyes fixed on a can of Coke and a full icetray. He collected a handful of ice cubes on a hand and threw them into a tall glass, and then filled half of the glass with Coke. Rubbing his neck with the hand still cool from holding the ice, Walters walked to the bookshelf and poured all the bourbon remaining in the bottle into the tall glass. He used a finger to mix the drink, sucked his finger and took a long swig.

Waiting Canals – 15

Walters walked by a narrow canal at a slow pace, looking at his surroundings with interest, relaxed and content. He didn’t seem to notice the awfulness around him. The air was hot, heavy with humidity, mosquitoes were landing on him, and the sour putrefaction of a dead body hidden somewhere perdured in the air as he moved, but Walters didn’t rush, enjoying the gratifying calmness that followed each one of his steps. He didn’t mind the sensation of his overheated body dissolving into the mugginess, the discomfort of another sweltering August evening. He was alone, he felt safe, and that was relevant to him. Most relevant.

He had been walking along this narrow canal for a while now, not completely sure how he had gotten here. Lines of hanging clothes and larger pieces of white fabric were stretched between buildings on both sides of the canal, a fragmented roof that isolated him from the city and imbued him with a sustained serenity.

He still remembered leaving Dr. Pomme’s mansion not more than an hour ago. He was also convinced he had left his equipment bag in the mansion. Maybe it had been his idea or maybe someone else had suggested it, he wasn’t sure. Either way, it had been a good arrangement, as he had to return there tomorrow. He definitely appreciated not being loaded with his bag now.

Why was he in this particular street? He had never been here before.

He had exited the mansion on a boat, but he had not remained for too long on it. That he knew for sure. From his present sense of safety, he remembered very vividly having experienced a sudden urge to abandon the boat, a need to be away from that boat and its occupants. From Jameson. From someone else who had been piloting the boat. Someone he had already forgotten for the most part, gladly, only a few disconnected remnants in his memory stuck to the undefined shape of a man: dark and clammy hair, a greyish shirt, a religious tattoo on an arm.

Nothing happened on the boat, his main memory about the incident a mere sour remembrance centered around that burning need to be away from the resplendent boat, and away from Jameson and the other person, that need heating up his temples, making him dizzy, scared of fainting in front of strangers, possibly enemies. Walters also recalled very clearly Jameson‘s face reflecting relief when he said that he wanted to be dropped off right where they were. Jameson asked if he was sure and Walters lied, saying that he had businesses to attend in that particular area, and that he knew exactly how to find his way back home.

That was it, then, he was walking back home. Somehow he was confident he was heading in the right direction.

Walters stopped where the canal he had been following intersected a wider canal. One bridge with four arms gave him the option to continue in any direction. He could walk up to the center of the bridge, right over the confluence of the two canals, and then take any of the three new directions, or retrace his steps and go back the way he had come, or jump over the bridge and into the water and swim wherever his instinct took him. It didn’t matter which way he chose. Any option would eventually take him home. There were always several valid solutions to the Memphian labyrinth. He would meander and eventually, one way or another, find himself in the streets he recognized around his house.

He could have selected one particular street, ending up in a busy lane with street vendors behind improvised stands well serviced with produce, freshwater creatures, or imports from New Orleans or St Louis. He could stroll around the stalls without a goal, observing the details, avoiding meeting the eyes of strangers. A fishmonger, obese and sickly-looking, sitting down on an upturned bucket, flies prospecting his bald head and his sweaty back, could have remained as a fleshy statue. Or the fishmonger could have turned around and stared at an intricate portal, floral and animal motifs carved in strange combinations, the closed doors leading to a courtyard where a flight of stairs would conduct one to a corridor on the second floor, at the end of it a simple door and behind the door a room with one window and a large oval table crowded by nine agitated members of the upper-classes. The only woman in the room Walters might have recognized, as he had seen her photograph only a few hours before. Although instead of the plain stare printed on the paper, he would have been confronted by fury in her eyes. “We can either do it right and be done with all of this nonsense, or keep fighting like children for years and years,” she would have yelled with the cadence of a politician. “But you are proposing to kill lots of people,” a man across the table would argue without conviction, as if to feed her fire with new coals. “Eventually they will decide to do the same to us, when we cannot control it. We are now in a position in which we can resolve this for good and start living like we deserve.” They would play with their words, pretending that they were getting somewhere, when in reality they had all been in agreement for months.

Or Walters could take a different street, heading in another direction, passing by a group of men playing cards on the floor, later another group in deep discussion over the best fuel for a barbeque, and finishing in an alley submerged in the most utter silence. The smell of wet cardboard being consumed by fungi, and the air emanating from rusty wires and chains somehow prickling his palate, he would gravitate towards a wooden fence, and find a spot where to squeeze between two planks and find himself into a waste ground overgrown with grasses, walk around a mattress partially digested, and stand in front of the entrance to a den buried into the ground. Listening carefully he would have heard the arrhythmic shrieks of fox pups, suckling, patiently growing their blue fur and their blue eyes in the darkness, unaware of their conception, of their existence, of their destinies. Walters would have stared at the den, and experienced a wave of reassurance knowing that more blue foxes would roam the city. He would have knelt down on the ground and exude his fear to feed them.

Waiting Canals – 14

Walters sank to the bottom of the canal, as if wanting to distance himself from the outside world up there beyond the surface. It was a calming experience to be surrounded by the still clumps of green and brown algae scattered at random, stoically anchored to the thick layer of mud layering the floor of the canal.

The wall of reeds lining the farther side of the canal strengthened the darkness around Walters. Darkness equalled protection. He floated right over the mud but without disturbing the sediment. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary that he could see.  Maybe because he wasn’t expecting to find anything. Some delicate algal tendrils caressed his cheeks and fogged his vision, but that was fine, you didn’t confront or avoid the environmental features of the canals, you had to accept them and be one with them.

Walters swam towards the center of the canal. He looked up and could see the sun rays hitting the surface and creating sparkles in motion, and there it was, the submerged and dangling piece of the shawl, a foreign object that could however pass as a giant slug or a floating medusa. The white cloth signaled the centerpoint of his search. Walters preferred to have a definite starting point in order to better triangulate all his subsequent movements. He felt the urge to swim up, stretch his arm and grab the cloth to investigate it and perhaps learn something from it. But the two men outside the water were likely to be looking at exactly that spot, and Walters didn’t want to be perceived by them, it was better to be alone for now.

Walters turned his light on, pointing it forward and parallel but close to the floor, and then rotated his body ever so slightly, surveying a great extent of the canal around him. Still nothing out of the ordinary. Mostly broken pieces of rotting wood, glass bottles, and small objects that over the years had been camouflaged under a carpet of moss-like algae. Small fish swam near the bottom of the canal and their behavior didn’t seem to be affected by any recent events, something that Walters was convinced he was able to discern. Nothing suggested that some type of large body, as the one from the woman he was looking for, had disturbed the surroundings in any way.

To get a different perspective, Walters swam up a couple of feet and pointed his light downwards. He noticed a faint path on the floor of sediment. Something had been dragged along the bottom of the canal. And it had happened two or three days ago given the shallow groove and smooth edges of the path. In another couple of days new sediment would settle on the floor of the canal and that path would disappear.

Now that Walters knew what he was looking at, he could see that a large area of the substrate directly under the shawl had been disturbed. There was no particular pattern, as if whatever body used to muddle the sediment had been moved around in all directions for a while. Possibly a struggle. And then the path had been drawn away towards the left and along the center of the canal.

Walters followed the path. It meandered from time to time, as if the body that plowed the path had been dragged by a group of drunkards. But there was still some apparent directionality, a target somewhere.

At some undetermined point the path turned directly towards the wall of reeds, where it ended. There was some space on the wall of the canal without any reeds that accommodated a submerged tunnel opening into the canal. A dead man was pressed against the entrance to the tunnel. Three dogfrogs were trying to pull the body into the tunnel in vain, even though the tunnel was wide enough for the body to be easily hauled into it. Iron bars blocked the top half of the tunnel entrance and the head of the body was stuck between two of the bars, and the dogfrogs were only using pure force to tug the body. Their feet and side fins were an agitated frenzy of activity. They would relinquish their hold, bite at a different spot and resume their aggressive pulling. This was the most active Walters had ever seen them.

Two of the dogfrogs scattered and disappeared into the tunnel when Walters started to swim towards the body. The third dogfrog moved between the dead man and Walters, as if to protect its dear possession. It bit the left side of the man’s face and dislodged the head from between the bars, but as Walters kept approaching it also scurried away into the tunnel. The dead man drifted down a little, sitting down on the mud in a more natural position, his freed head now resting on the bottom bar.

Walters used his light to survey the area around the body. He didn’t see anything that could be associated with the dead man or the woman he was supposed to find. There was just the body of the man, sitting in front of the tunnel. To Walters the man seemed to be ready to turn around and start swimming into the tunnel. To find someplace where to hide his death. Most of his face was gone, ripped apart by the dogfrogs.

A gargoyle carved from a block of granite had a rope wrapped around its neck and wings. The other end of the rope was wrapped around the waist of the dead man. The head of the gargoyle was now resting on the man’s stomach, like a pet lamenting the demise of its owner. The man wore a white shirt, which very clearly showcased three gunshots to the chest. Most of the blood had been washed away, the now subtle stains framing and accentuating the bullet holes. Walters didn’t recall ever being so directly exposed to an assassination, so it was a little surprising for him not to be moved in the slightest. Maybe it was the serene stillness of the body, sitting between the reeds and with fish swaying around him as if he were now a rock or a decomposing log. Maybe it was the water cleansing and taking away his humanity, leaving behind just an emotionless husk.

Around the neck of the man hung a red cross. Walters unfastened the chain that had survived the repeated biting and tugging of the dogfrogs. It was an oversized and heavy cross, with red enamel coating a metallic base. Walters dropped the cheap-looking chain and pushed the cross into an elastic bag attached to his belt. Not thinking twice about it, he inspected all the pockets of the dead man, only finding a leather wallet, which he squeezed into his bag without bothering to look at its contents.

Placing his light on a shoulder of the dead man, Walters illuminated the interior of the tunnel. Green algae covered all the surfaces for the first three feet, then brown algae took over. The tunnel continued straight as far as Walters could see. The interior of the tunnel was only inhabited by floating shrimp and minuscule and slow-moving fish. No sign of the dogfrogs or any clue about where the tunnel might lead to.

Walter’s desire was to move the body of the dead man aside and start swimming along the tunnel. He could sense there was something of value to be discovered somewhere in there, going deeper into the city than he had ever gone. Even though he understood that now was not the time to survey that tunnel, which possibly would lead to a system of further interconnected tunnels and other inner spaces, it was difficult to resist the urge. Maybe he could enter the tunnel and just swim for a while, until he reached the first intersection or chamber. But he knew that once he reached that point he would be unable to go back, he would feel pressed to keep exploring.

Finally choosing not to go into the tunnel, Walters assessed where the entrance to the tunnel was in relation to the spot under the shawl and his entrypoint into the canal. He also estimated where the two men were standing on the courtyard and where he would exit the canal if he swam directly to the other side of the canal across from the tunnel.

Walters secured the light to his belt, turned around, executed several strong arm strokes to cross the width of the canal, hit the bottom of the canal with his feet and propelled himself up before hitting the wall, grabbed the rim with both hands and pushed himself into the air, landing on the courtyard and walking towards the two men in as smooth a single move as possible. Being surprising was another form of shielding yourself.

“Well, did you see anything?” Dr. Pomme asked when Walters stopped in front of him.

Walters removed the mask from his face and hung it around his neck, untied his wetsuit and pushed his hair back with both hands.

“No, I didn’t see anything of relevance,” Walters said. He judged that his answer was not too far from the truth. However, he immediately worried that the two men would see through his deception. “It was too dark, I need a more powerful torch. Also, because of the current created by the boats and such I would really need to survey a quite long stretch of the canal before I can tell you whether there is something in there or not.” Dr. Pomme seemed pleased with that explanation.

“What’s your rate?” Jameson asked. Walters was surprised by that question. He didn’t recall having a rate or ever thinking about such a thing.

“Fifteen dollars per hour plus expenses, including any gear that gets damaged during the job,” Walters said, wondering if that was a reasonable amount.

Dr. Pomme nodded. “See to it,” he said to Jameson, and then he turned around and headed towards the house.

Walters reckoned that he could have asked for more money, but he would be happy to forget about it as soon as he could get out of there.

Waiting Canals – 13

“Yes, along your spine,” Jameson said. Walters stretched his right arm behind his back, prospecting with his hand the area where he imagined the tattoo could be, expecting to feel it with his fingertips and to understand it.

“A little farther up,” Jameson said, regretting he had mentioned the tattoo at all. “Yes, right there,” he added, hoping that that would be the end of any further mentioning about tattoos.

Walters palpated his back. He couldn’t feel any contours or rugosities on the skin, but for a few seconds he made Jameson believe that he was able to see the tattoo with his fingertips, as unknowingly Walters traced the bell of the medusa that seemed to float between his shoulder blades. Walters’ delineated back muscles gave the medusa an asymmetrical and bumpy configuration. A poisonous air emanated from its ugliness. In the center of the bell there were two human eyes, and the top was crowned with an upturned ship that served as a hat. Numerous and intertwined tentacles dangled from the body and some of those tentacles ended in three-fingered hands that were holding coins. One coin accommodated a skull, another coin a cat’s eye. Asked about the color of the ink, Jameson would have advanced a guess about some sort of dark blue, but there were green and red veins that didn’t add any detail but seemed to make the medusa waver ever so slowly.

“Are there any names on it?” Walters asked.

“No, no names,” Jameson replied.

“What is it?”

“A medusa with eyes, and with coins at the end of some of the tentacles,” Jameson said.

“Medusas don’t have eyes,” Walters said.

“Well, this one has two,” Jameson almost made the point that it wasn’t a medusa after all, just a stupid tattoo, but he continued restraining his condescendence.

“How many coins?” Walters asked. Somehow that seemed relevant to him. If anything, the number twelve resonated in his mind with prominence. “Twelve?”

Jameson counted the coins. Some of them were partly covered by tentacles or other coins. “Yes, I think there are twelve of them. Why twelve?”

“I don’t know,” Walters said. “Why twelve indeed?” he thought. Maybe there was nothing to it and it had just been a fluke. In any case, he welcomed the notion that he knew something about that tattoo, which otherwise would have been a foreign object, like a parasite or an insult encrusted on his back.

“A medusa,” Walters muttered. “A medusa,” he repeated almost inaudibly. For a moment he thought he remembered and understood everything about that particular medusa, but as soon as that thought came it went away. As he wrapped his back under the wetsuit, that tattoo slipped second by second from his memory.

“Just give me a moment,” Walters said, kneeling down and rummaging through the pockets of his jeans to find the notebook and the small pen. Opening the notebook and holding the pen gave him again a sense of reassurance, drawing a line below the last entry a feeling of certainty and being in control, and floating on that ephemeral composure he wrote under the fresh line ‘I’ve tattoo, upperback. Medusa with eyes, holding 12 coins, to feed her babies? What inside the coins?’

He stuck the notebook and the pen in an inside pocket in his bag. He got out the diving tank and the mask and then he pushed all his clothes into the bag as if to hide the inside pocket from the view of others.

“Just make sure you don’t touch anything.” Dr. Pomme ordered. “Just go in and see what you can see.”

Walters slung the tank on his bank and put the mask on. Getting closer to the border of the canal, Walters assessed the surface of the water, as if looking for a door, an entryway. He looked back at the two men behind him, and they seemed more distant now. He could have been sitting on a boat already far from the coast and they would have been bystanders ashore, looking at the horizon. Jameson had reestablished his inscrutable face again. Dr. Pomme seemed very unhappy.

“Don’t touch anything,” Dr. Pomme insisted.

Walters, once again, opened his mouth to say something but he immediately closed it. What he wanted to say was unclear in his mind, and he didn’t believe the two men were likely to care for it. He readjusted his mask and engulfed the regulator with his mouth. In a quick and smooth move he squatted on the border, seemed to fall like fluid in a glass, elongating his body as he broke the water. No splash, suddenly he had disappeared under the water and only some shallow ripples revealed his entry-point into the canal.

Waiting Canals – 12

“You think that she may be… ?” Walters started to ask but didn’t continue. He allowed the silence to take over and complete his question, while pointing to the water.

“We don’t know,” Dr. Pomme said. A long silence ensued.

That ‘we’ reverberated in Walters’ head. Who were those ‘we’? Dr. Pomme and who else? Walters imagined, just a sudden image traversing his mind, a series of Dr. Pommes wearing the same clothes and with the same proportions, all of their lips flickering on the same manner as if stuffed with small and vivacious shrew hearts.

“So you just want me to find her, that’s all?” Walters said, immediately wondering if his question  had came out as insensitive.

“I just want to know…” Dr. Pomme said, clearing his throat before continuing, “whatever it is you can find.”

Walters was ready to ask something else but he closed his mouth instead and studied the two men who stood in front of him. He tried to extract any subjacent information from their faces or their attitudes, but there was nothing for him to read. Nothing that seemed relevant in any case. The impassible face of Jameson was especially difficult to ascertain. It was as if Jameson were making a deliberate effort to be as uncommunicative as possible. Only his eyes, framed by an expressionless face, were active enough to tell a story, but Jameson was very much in control and unwilling for that story to unfold. He was there, behind a barricade, scrutinizing his own facade, adjusting it as needed to conceal whatever he had been told to conceal. In contrast, Dr. Pomme lacked that level of self-control. His face was a mosaic of tics, grimaces and lips and eye dances, but he was at the same time patinated with deception. The sincerity of the big man was nowhere to be observed. And those fat lips, with their continuous flickering kept distracting Walters.

They were hiding something from him, Walters was convinced. They were not telling him something that could be important for him to know. At least they had told him the immediate purpose of him being there, and that should have been reassuring. Indeed that was something. Get into the canal, prospect for body, report findings. Easy, clear enough. Nothing to worry about, then. It should have been good enough for him. Some amount of secrecy was almost to be expected, after all. Wasn’t he a stranger to the city, to all of them and their particular ways? Why would they have to be honest with him? Nevertheless Walters was imbued by concern, shrouded by a haze of insecurity, far away from the right amount of serenity he always aspired to. It was difficult for Walters not to allow the tendrils of uncomfortableness to creep in when fenced off from the relevant information that could make all the difference. His lower back was itching again. He didn’t even care that much about the pillars of their intrigues, the nuances of their justifications, and all their whens and whys. All of that was mainly important to them, and Walters wasn’t necessarily interested in being invited to participate in their machinations, he was more apprehensive about the puzzle pieces not fitting where they were supposed to. He could understand that they didn’t want to involve the police, he was sure Dr. Pomme would have chuckled and murmured that these days one wasn’t so sure where their interests stood. Fine with that. What he could not comprehend was why someone hadn’t jumped into the water hours ago, right when the shawl had been spotted and the blood by the canal had risen concerns. He couldn’t imagine Dr. Pomme impetuously stepping over the canal and plunging into the water, but certainly Jameson or some other servant could have followed Dr. Pomme’s orders and surveyed at least the small section of the canal between the blood and the shawl.

“Do you require anything, any type of assistance?” Jameson asked with the quickness of who wants to dissipate an uncomfortable conversation between two other parties. Walters didn’t initially recognise Jameson voice, he had momentarily forgotten the connection between the voice and the face. Walters felt a warm wave of relief, sensing Jameson near him. He couldn’t trust Jameson more than Dr. Pomme, but at least Walters couldn’t imagine Jameson murdering him by strangulation or a shot to his head, not even arranging a third party to do it, and that put him at ease regarding Jameson.

“What?” Walters asked even though he had understood the question.

“Do you require anything for…” Jameson said, hesitating for a moment, “for the prospection?”

Walters realized where some of his uneasiness came from. He must have accepted the job, although  he couldn’t remember when or under which terms. What had he agreed to? Not much of a conversation had taken place, and he wasn’t sweating too profusely. Nothing to worry about. Right?  No. Nothing to worry about. He was sure he hadn’t written anything down in his notebook. How bad could it be if he had not experienced the urge to record any details, any premonitions, any reminders that would become unsolvable riddles in a few days?

“No, thank you, I brought everything I need for now,” Walters said. He went back to the center of the courtyard to retrieve his equipment bag. What was exactly the job? Why him? How did they know about him? Really, the more he thought about it, the more unnerving that “why him?” became. He knew it would have been a good idea to ask some of these questions before throwing the bag next to Dr. Pomme feet, and taking out the wetsuit, the diving glasses and the dive light, but the simple idea of formulating the appropriate questions in his mind was tiresome and ridden with difficulty, especially when anticipating that they would likely deflect any of his questions with noncommittal, when not outright untruthful answers. It was easier to remove his T-shirt and jeans, expose his tattooed and shockingly lean, almost malnourished body to the sun, start the process of getting into the wetsuit, finish the job as soon as possible and get out of there, find a cheap establishment where to down a cold beer while waiting for a platter of popcorn shrimp and onion rings, then another beer. Those questions were like fog anyway. They morphed and dissipated, leaving just a feeling of foreboding that numbed and shrank his thoughts. The “why him?” still pulsated somewhere on the right side of his head, like a throbbing drum being beaten far away.

“Why me?” Walters asked to release the pressure in his head.

“What do you mean?” Jameson asked.

“Why do you need me to do this?” he pointed again to the area of the canal he would soon be surveying.

“You are the right person for this type of job, aren’t you?” Jameson asked. There you go, Walters thought, the deflection.

“I guess,” Walters said. He couldn’t remember ever being involved in any type of operation like this, but his memory was not that trustworthy, so he was ready to take the word from a stranger. He must be the right person for the job. He must be good at it. Jameson must be right.

“That’s an interesting tattoo you have there,” Jameson said, now behind Walters and looking at his back.

“Which one?” Walters asked, extending and observing his arms. He could see a series of small tattoos on his right arm, most of them poorly executed and showing signs of aging, with haloed borders and distorted lines, a series of anchors, ships, dates, skulls and sharks. On the left arm he had a more recent tattoo of an octopus, tentacles intertwined along his forearm with the last tendrils over his hand, and a pear-like head covering most of his biceps.

“The one on your back,” Jameson said.

“I have a tattoo on my back?” Walters asked in surprise. He looked over both of his shoulders but couldn’t even see a glimpse of it.

Waiting Canals – 11

Dr. Pomme, without opening his jacket, slid his hand under it and into the inner pocket. He pulled out a hand-sized picture, unbent a corner, contemplated it for a while. For for too long, in Walters’ opinion, as if trying to spot some hidden information, elucidate some mystery in that image that he had overlooked until then. In an overly dramatic fashion, Dr. Pomme shook the picture in the air, and then he gave it to Walters.

“That’s Camila, my daughter,” Dr. Pomme said. Walters could see the blonde hair, the white dress with a tall and lacy neck, the golden necklace and the blue-cross pendant over the chest, the grey and blurred background without any discernible details, the humorless expression, no doubt a spoiled character, all full of herself. Nothing of interest to him. He could have scrunched that picture and thrown it away, and waited to receive a more interesting one. But he kept looking at it, pretending to care.

“Camila,” Walters told himself aloud. He wouldn’t remember the features or any of the details from that picture in an hour, but he might remember the name. Camila. Camila, he repeated, silently. No way, though, the name slipped out from his mind every time he tried to squeeze it in there, he would irremediably forget that name. He knew that he should be getting his notebook out and writing down the name, scribbling a couple of notes, but sometimes it was better, more liberating, to completely forget about some particular things.

“Yes, Camila,” Dr. Pomme said and he started to walk towards the canal. Jameson first, and then Walters, followed Dr. Pomme.

The courtyard ended by the canal without any barrier or interruption, the slabs paving the courtyard simply transitioned into a smooth border, one foot over the water. As he got closer to the border, Walters saw that the packed reeds covered the farther half of the canal surface. Tall, seeded and exuberant against the pink wall, decreasingly shorter and more feeble towards the center of the canal, where large masses of brown algae seemed to grow from below, as if stretching out with predatory tentacles to kill and consume the debilitated stalks, secreting slimy bubbles that surfaced and accumulated in large patches and gave the whole canal an impression of rotting from the inside out. The hectic movement of the tadpoles and similarly sized fish, if you looked at them long enough, would however make you realize that life was plethoric under the water, and that those creatures slithered through the algal habitat very willingly, feeding on the surrounding structures while procuring themselves with protection from the large fish roaming the canals, the catfish, the bass, the pike, those ones with the yellow stripes Walters couldn’t remember the name of.

“Do you see over there?” Dr. Pomme asked, pointing to the center of the canal.

“What, that piece of cloth?” Walters said. It was a bundle of white lace, most of it lying on a bed of reddish algae, one end immersed in the water. Despite being completely soaked, the fabric retained a pure and pearly white. It was easy sometimes to forget how clean the water was in some canals, when reeds, algae, the occasional piece of trash, and some amount of shade combined to create an impression of utter filth, of floating and sticky mud. Just an impression, an unfounded apprehensiveness. Mainly a preconception originated from the fear, especially from the local inhabitants, about all the unknown creatures that could loom from the bottom, with all their defecations, oozing and diseasing.

“Yes,” Dr. Pomme said, “it’s one of Camila’s shawls.”

“OK,” Walters said in a quiet voice. There must be something of relevance about that wet bundle, he thought. Something beyond a shawl that belonged to a woman depicted in a picture. He just had to wait, in a second Dr. Pomme would explain the importance of the shawl, of him being there. Maybe Dr. Pomme would even illuminate him, as if he knew Walters in all sorts of detail, being able to explain the intricate reasons why he felt displaced from a position of purpose, of security; Walters could only hope. He entertained the idea, for a moment, of being summoned across the city to jump into that canal just to retrieve that shawl. Not really against it. In fact, he wouldn’t have minded that at all, especially if paid for it, to hear the words “Just go and fetch me that shawl, will you?” He would diligently do so, handle the shawl to Dr. Pomme, be shown the door, disappear into the city with some greens in his pocket, a ghost that once again everyone would ignore. Nothing wrong with that.

“It was there this morning. There was also a little of blood right there,” Dr. Pomme said, indicating with his hand the area on the canal border closest to the shawl. The blood was already gone. “How much was ‘a little,’ anyway?” Walters thought. Blood. Blood. He repeated the word several times in his mind and it sounded like cotton. Blood. Funny how lately he kept envisioning this image in which blood flowed generously, as if reaching out to complete a frame and transmute the background into velvety red. It was inside a cabin but he somehow knew that, outside, immersed in a weakening storm, the hull, which had recently been painted with a dull black, advanced slowly fighting with the sea, and that in the bridge, behind the wheel, the four golden ducados nailed into the wood shined like tropical butterflies. In the cabin. His own blood on his hands, trickling down his wrists, blood that emanated from an arm or his torso, flowing like mountain brooks running into each other. He would place his hands over his forehead again and he felt the warmth, the pounding. He tried not to look at the body on the floor. There was nothing to do, he just had to wait until the waters would settle down again, if ever. He could go upstairs and jump over the gunwale and let the ocean clean him, cure him, allow him to forget. But he accepted that he deserved the blow, and the last thing he could offer to his assailant right then was to bleed, sit down in the cabin and suffer the certainty that most things would never be the same again.

“I would want you to look into the canal,” Dr. Pomme said, immediately frowning. Even Walters could see that Dr. Pomme was harshly disappointed with the delivery of that request. He must have rehearsed that line several times in his head before summoning it, but regardless of whether he had worded it as intended or he had improvised on the last second, he was clearly unpleased with the result. He had intended to say and express something else altogether. His words lacked any sense of urgency, there wasn’t any spark of love in his voice, and he must have felt that the moral distance that separated him from this idiot in ridiculous clothes had shrunk very unpleasantly.

Waiting Canals – 10

The sun was still high in the sky, unbothered by any clouds, heating up the air, every second, every breath that Walters took. The three men were now in the center of the courtyard, where Walters felt that the sun was the most intense. Running his hand through his hair didn’t wipe away the accumulated heat on his scalp. At least, they were standing on an area of the courtyard that had been watered recently. A cool embrace climbed from the ground and licked his hands any time he was able to leave his arms at ease. No, it hadn’t rained. Someone seemed to have dumped buckets of water here and there.

In a depression in the center of the slab of paving stone next to his right foot, a puddle remained. There were bubbles of soap. Someone had cleaned the courtyard, then. Walters put his sole over the bubbles, held his foot in that position for a while, and then pressed down slowly, the soapy water extending beyond the depression, rewetting dry sections of the slab.

“What is it that we’re doing here, again?” Walters asked.

The old servant seemed surprised by the voice of the stranger, and clearly annoyed by the question, but Jameson replied in an accommodating, almost friendly intonation: “Dr. Pomme will be here shortly.”

Walters dropped his equipment bag between two small puddles. The old servant threw another disgusted look at Walters, who this time was too busy looking around to notice. After counting the number of small windows on the pink wall, there was the counting of the number of bricks between the bottom of a window and the tallest of the reeds. There was also a large puddle at the end of the courtyard by the canal and several sparrows were taking baths, shaking their bodies, flying away. Seven, possibly eight.

The sound of a door opening behind Walters. Jameson and the old servant turned immediately to face the stairs. Walters turned his torso but not his legs, and then his neck even further, and saw the voluminous Dr. Pomme in a white suit, dealing with the stairs one step at a time, with his body slightly sideways, his right hip leading his way. After conquering his descent, Dr. Pomme stopped to pull down his jacket and to arrange his tie. He looked at the group of three in the middle of the courtyard. He tried to portray a smile but gave up almost right away.

As Dr. Pomme approached them, Walters noticed the ripples in the white fabric, and how the oversized upper body was encased just barely in the resplendent summer suit. Walters could imagine Dr. Pomme eating popcorn shrimp from a bucket with both hands. He wouldn’t mind sharing the bucket, dipping the shrimp in the hot sauce, consuming the gentle flesh, and then a gulp of cold beer.

“Dr. Pomme, this is Mr. Walters,” Jameson said, and Walters shook the extended hand of Dr. Pomme, spotty and significantly larger than his.

Dr. Pomme nodded. “I’m glad you were able to come in such a short notice,” he said, still out of breath.

“You’re welcome,” Walters said. Probably the wrong thing to say, he thought.

“I really appreciate you coming here,” Dr. Pomme insisted. This time Walters simply smiled, and glanced at Jameson, whose face was expressionless, distant.

Dr. Pomme looked at Walters without saying anything for a while. Walters tapped his back pocket. He felt the notebook. If he were alone, he would pull the notebook out and reread the last written pages. But if he were alone, and safe, he would be sitting in his balcony, the glass of bourbon on the arm of the chair, nobody around, at most just voices of people in the distance, impossible to understand their meanings, just sounds, speckles in the fabric of the city.

“Could you please make sure that everything is sorted out for this evening?” Dr. Pomme asked  to the old servant, who nodded and departed towards the building, not at all insulted by the obvious dismissal. Relieved. Ready to attend to more important tasks.

“Should I go too? Maybe you want to speak to Mr. Walters in private?” Jameson asked.

Dr. Pomme shook his head, said ‘no’ a few times while affectionately tapping Jameson’s shoulder.

Waiting Canals – 9

From the basement level, a labyrinth that contained the kitchen and the other service rooms, a flight of stairs ascended directly to a columned lobby. Only a few worn steps separated the plain and bare walls, and the cheap, functional furniture of downstairs, from the extravagance and elegant details of that lobby. Walters first noticed the surrounding, suffocating light entering from the large expansions of glass on both the ceiling and the four walls, then the touches of green throughout, and the sparkles from the polished silver, finally once again that feeling of uneasiness creeping up his back, his neck, and then exploding in his head, that uneasiness that kept coming and leaving through him, only a few seconds at a time, a scurrying creature entering him, heating him, but then sliding away.

The old servant and Jameson, shoulder to shoulder, crossed the lobby without titillation, almost speeding up their pace, their hard soles hitting the marbled floor with a martial rhythm. Walters was impressed by those large panelled windows inviting the sun without restrain, shining on the oriental vases around the walls, the metallic fixtures, and a trophy cabinet filled with silver and gold. At one extreme of the lobby an elongated tapestry hung from the wall, and Walters had only three seconds to inspect it before he followed the two men into a corridor. There were birds flying around a naked woman, a cross formed by roses, and a blue eye on the top, all of it in darken, fading colors. ‘Why an eye?’ Walters wondered, the lobby already behind him, now following Jameson and the old servant along the corridor, where a long succession of portraits were meticulously aligned on one wall, all of those white men in dark clothes, over dark backgrounds, looking through the oversized windows on the other side of the corridor, sheets of glass from floor to ceiling, only partly covered by thick, red-satin curtains. That uneasiness again, but soon gone when Walters remembered ‘Why an eye?’ He was convinced he used to know, the answer was somewhere at the front of his mind, he could almost reach it and comprehend it, but it remained blurred and hidden behind a screen.

“He will meet us in the courtyard in a few minutes,” the old servant said to Jameson as they kept walking. The movement of the old servant, with his head protruding strangely forward and his body swinging sideways around his waist, reminded Walters of a pelican. A pelican somewhere on a beach. Wobbly most of the time, magnificent when standing on one of the poles in the deck over the beach, looking at the horizon, its feet large and elastic. The traces of bourbon on the sides of his tongue. Long feathers sticking out from the neck of the pelican. A thunderous sky, but beautiful clouds. Her hair escaping from under and over the pineapple bandana. The pelican, maybe its name was Roundy, on the center of the deck among all of them sitting on folding chairs and holding full glasses of bourbon, its eyes prospecting its audience, and that woman threw a piece of raw fish into the air and before the piece started its descent it disappeared and the pelican shook its head and danced on the spot, glancing at those humans, their hands, which one of them would contain the next morsel, usually the woman.

At the end of the corridor there were four pairs of French doors, flowers and leafy motifs carved on the glass panels. The old servant opened one of the doors and waited until Jameson and Walters went through it.

Outdoors again, a few stoned stairs led to a ridiculously monumental, square courtyard, the centerpiece for social events. Two sides of the courtyard were walled by the two wings of the main building. A third side was lined with arches overlaid with ivy beyond which there was a geometrical garden. The fourth side, opposite to the stairs that the three men were now descending, was delimited in all its length by a canal. Another mansion, built with pink stone, stood at the other side of that canal. Several generations of reeds had populated the far side of the canal and covered the first two meters of the pink wall, as if the canal were trying to escape its confinement and climb to the top of the building and over the city.

Waiting Canals – 8

The only maid working in the kitchen at that time had stopped slicing potatoes to stuff some pulled pork and some shreds of cabbage between two pieces of hardened bread, and placed the improvised food in front of Walters, without a plate, directly on the table still wet with the sticky juice of recently sliced potatoes. Crumbs scattered around him every time that Walters managed to put his mouth around the brick of bread and take a bite. Large bites filling up his mouth. The maid came back with a glass of milk, which he also consumed as if devouring was the only line of action, nothing in the immediate future beyond that. After swallowing his last mouthful, he let out a pleasant sigh, all of a sudden he experienced a very positive feeling of hope. This feeling dissipated soon, but gradually, without him noticing.

“Have you seen any blue boxes?” he asked, turning on his chair and facing the maid, who was standing at the back of the kitchen, pretending to dry a porcelain jar with her apron, looking at him with the intensity born from fear.

“No,” she said. “What are they?” She added, glancing at the door that Jameson had closed on his way out some minutes ago.

“Well, you know, blue foxes,” Walters said. “They run around town, and they disappear, like dreams  after you wake up, I guess, and they have blue eyes for the most part, you see.”

She shook her head and, in a habitual but thoughtless motion, found her pendant with her fingers, the blue cross of the methodists, and caressed the borders, her thumb rubbing in circular motions the pentagonal relief in the center of the cross. She knew somehow that this strange man was not a methodist. He didn’t even look like a baptist, this man, and that was weird to her, it was even worse than being in the presence of a baptist. A Southerner, but not from here, not from Memphis, an outsider, he couldn’t possibly understand the tension in Memphis, the fear of some, although her priest kept saying that these were the days that would be remembered, the days in which a purer Memphis would raise from the filth of yore, from the lies of our enemies; finally, because our own shadows had been wrapped over our shoulders for too long. She liked the sound of “would raise,” like birds hiding in the reeds suddenly exploding and flying into the air. Raising. Raising, raising.

“Can I have some more milk, please?” Walters asked, holding up his empty glass.

While she was pouring the milk, Walters noticed that the maid was looking at his neck. It itched, his neck, but he was not going to scratch it again, at some point he had to stop, relax, have a deep breath and just focus on the surroundings, on the drops of milk on the sides of the glass, the color of her eyes, brown, the garlic braid hanging from a hook, only seven bulbs left… Three, four, five, six, seven, the regular pattern of the bricks, and the window over the sink, overlooking a small yard, if the window were smaller and round it would be like a porthole, with tiny fish swimming on the other side, silvery, vivacious, he trapped under the rubble, his right leg possibly smashed, the motion of his arms limited to his hands and wrists, his face right in front of the porthole, almost forced to look at those silvery fish, waiting for some other creature to sail by behind that round piece of glass, waiting until his air would run out and he would die, but then such creature appeared, first a cloud coming out from the darkness, wavering, then the two masses of hair stepping forward, framing a disgusted face, the eyes behind the diving mask full of resolution.

“You ain’t from Memphis, right?” the maid asked.

He was going to answer that no, not really, not yet in any case, but the door was opened with a sonorous snap and Jameson came into the kitchen followed by an old servant in an impeccable suit.

“Dr. Pomme is waiting, are you ready?” Jameson asked.

Walters nodded and stood up. He was still very unsure about why he was there, but he followed Jameson and the old servant, grabbing an apple from a basket by the door in his way out, leaving the kitchen and entering into the entrails of a blue fox, he thought.