Short Story

The Seven Songs

On our first morning in Huatulco I got up with the dawn. I sat on a stone bench, the surface still cool from the night air, and peeled the store labels off my new boardshorts. 2005’s most fashionable style, available on a “deep discount” after Christmas.

While it was true that this was not my first trip to Mexico, my only other time here was less impressive than I liked to let on. My previous visit was when I was young, the summer before I got married. The church paid my way and I helped with construction work in a village near Puerto Vallarta. Since then, the furthest south my wife and I had travelled was Wisconsin Dells until we won this week-long trip in a draw from our local Chamber of Commerce—the only way the real Matt Zehen could ever afford a resort like this.

The local avifauna did not know my travel history and were happy to keep me company. They chittered and squawked, welcoming me despite my barefoot intrusion.

An emissary grackle—curious, or angry, or mocking; maybe all three—landed close by. The bird was there for a reason, it seemed like. Fixing me with an unblinking white sequin of an eye, the black bird gave me the full range of its vocal repertoire. Piercing passerine whistles, abrupt diphthongal clicks, feather-puffing, squeaky-door creaks and various complicated combo arrangements. I’d heard of the breed’s bravado, and here was persuasive evidence that all I’d heard was true.

We had similar species of birds back home. Red wing blackbirds—so common in Manitoba that when I pictured our house, the reedy lakeshore, the sign marking the Fiftieth Parallel down by the road, I pictured these birds too. I saw a male blackbird, red chevrons flashing in my mind as it flitted from cattail to cattail. It sang, then flew, then sang again.

Our red wing blackbirds were itinerant, chased south by the Manitoba ice and frost each year. This winter we had followed them; flown as they did to South Mexico. My wife and I were to be snowbirds too, at least for one week.

The brash lout atop the palapa before me that morning was a cousin to them: A great-tailed grackle, or zanate, the loquacious king of the beach. He was a big male, aggressive and territorial. Like a drunken bully at closing time, he assumed a prominent location and proclaimed himself, vaunting the splendid length of his tail, the magnificence of his harem, and the iridescence of his henna-black plumage.

I whistled and clucked back at him, causing laughter and lengua española commentary from nearby pool attendants and landscapers already at work on the resort grounds. One of these fellows wandered over shyly and pointed at the loud bird.

“Be careful what you teach them,” he said in lightly accented English, far better than my limited Spanish. “These creatures are fast learners.”

I thought, with guilt, that I probably spoke more zanate than Spanish, oblivious tourist that I was. So far, the zanate had been the teacher.

The man continued, watering the lawn as he spoke. “I taught a zanate many words when I was a child,” he said.

I imagined him, a small boy living in a jungle casita, running barefoot like a Latino Mowgli and followed by a tame zanate.

“We lived in a high rise next to a large park in Mexico City,” he continued, and the Mowgli of my imaginings was destroyed no sooner than he was born. “I’m a retired university librarian.”

I was further surprised. My emerging idea of his childhood seemed condescending and stereotypical from the start. I felt ashamed by how I had assumed things about this stranger. I made up my mind to be more thoughtful in my appraisal, as I’m sure this stranger would be in assessing me.

He saw my almost-hidden double-take and it was like he expected it; as if he had seen this reaction before. “My grandchildren get a special pass to use the swimming pool here,” he said. “And I’m able to swim in the ocean near the resort.” He squinted across the sea at the rising sun and I squinted with him. “It’s better than workin’ at Wal-Mart,” he concluded with a friendly half-smile.

I held out my hand. “Matt.”

Señor Matteo,” he said, taking my hand with a broadening smile. “I am Juan.”

Juan, the talkative zanate, and I continued our pre-breakfast conversations daily and I learned a lot about my new friends, feathered and otherwise. Juan had many interesting theories and he was eager to share them. For one, he thought the zanate in each region developed a distinct vocabulary. “Vernacular,” he said, enunciating carefully as if the word was fragile. “Just like the American southerners or those loud ones from Boston,” he said, imitating them with a nasal cry: “Bahh-stin…” Hearing this, the zanate ducked its head, clucked once as if in derision, and flew off.

“A lot of the songbirds,” he said, pausing to stand erect as if he was at a lectern, “make growling, rattling sounds. I myself suspect these were learned from humans as our populations and range expanded.”

‘How so?” I said.

“Listen,” he replied after pinching the hose to quiet the stream of water. “Doesn’t it sound like that zanate is doing his best to mimic a chainsaw or a generator?”

Silently marvelling, I listened to a distant bird’s vocalizations and agreed.

Juan’s rich descriptions of the local flora and fauna were a tonic for me as the week wore on. “I have had a really rough time at work the last few months,” I said quietly one morning. “I don’t want to think about home this week. Tell me more about the jungle—your jungle.”

What I told Juan about myself was true, but there was more. In fact, I had been fired. “It’s just downsizing; don’t take it personally,” Carol from HR had said. “Besides, you are getting a great settlement!” That was months ago. I had worked at that place for 12 years. Still sensitive and uncertain about what to do next, I was lost after living so long with my path laid out for me.

“Maybe it’s best you talk about your troubles at work,” he replied. “I’m a safe person to tell. I won’t judge.”

I wagged my head, maybe yes—maybe no.

“You can share your difficulties. I am interested in your business experiences, if you would care to tell me, Señor Matteo.”

“Yeah, sure. Big changes, I’ll say that much. I can’t go into details,” I said, dodging.

“Well, hey amigo, if you don’t want to talk about it with me, it’s no problem. I understand,” he said, and I sensed a slight distance. Had I insulted him?

“Thanks,” I said, as he moved along the hedge, raking. As he carried on, I followed, crossing my hands behind my back. I stood quietly for a moment and then said, “We hired a new advertising agency, down in Michigan.” A half-truth, they had in fact replaced my staff and me. He stopped, setting the rake aside and wiping his forehead with a bandana from his pocket. “Si, go on, por favor.”

Early one morning, Juan did not approach me immediately as he had the other days. I was eager to continue our ongoing discussion. He had been telling me about frigates and seahawks—two more fascinating birds that we saw every day as we stood on the lawn near the beach. Yesterday Juan had pointed some out and I lifted my face and watched the glint of their wings in the blue sky far above; so high they were almost invisible. When I looked back, Juan had moved down the beach, picking up scraps of paper and cigarette butts.

Today I found my Mexican acquaintance snipping branches on a hedge at the perimeter of the resort property. He did not hear me come up behind him and his work with the shears struck me as, while precise, possessing a kind of savage intensity. The blades were sharp and made a snicking metallic sound that had frightened the birds. They reprimanded Juan from distant treetops.

Señor Matteo!” he said with a start, as if roused from a trance.

“¿Cómo estás, Juan?” I replied, speaking slowly and carefully the way they had taught us at the orientation brunch.

He answered in the customary, pleasant fashion and asked me how I was. Normally, after our greetings, he would begin his observations. I was always struck by the care with which he talked about the forest and the sea.

Today, he was quiet, and appeared distracted. I pressed him several times, but he said nothing, concentrating instead on his gardening work.

“It’s nearing my last day here and I was hoping to get your address and write you. I enjoy our conversations and thought maybe we could continue them by mail or email…” I tailed off. “Is everything alright today?”

He stopped his work and dropped the shears. Picking up the running hose and putting his thumb over the nozzle, he sprayed the branches where he had been clipping. Still silent, he looked at the hedge intently as it dripped, the small green leaves dark and shining. A zanate landed on a branch above us. The bird plumped the feathers around its head and shoulders with such effort that all we could see was its beak. It launched into a furious vocal assault on Juan’s hissing water hose.

“It sounds like he says for us to go to hell,” I said to Juan.

“And the horse we rode in on,” Juan replied, pinching the hose to stop the spray.

We chuckled together as the bird rattled on like a wind-up toy, slowly exhausting its fury. Juan dropped the hose near the trunk of a royal palm.

“My friend,” Juan said, awkwardly and in a voice burdened with emotion. “I’m afraid I have a confession for you. I am only a gardener. I was never a librarian, but it was what I always wished that I could be.”

He glanced down, wiping his hands dry on the front of his shirt and compressing his lips. I could hear him breathing through his nose, a rasping noise. At first, I was taken aback by his words, but I said nothing. For the second time, the biography I had built for Juan collapsed.

“I learned to read in English and I have studied all about the birds. It interests me, and my wife says I have a gift for language. I read the internet out loud in English, every night, for hours,” he said, explaining part of his charade. “At the library in town,” he added.

I nodded agreement, so he would keep talking as I gathered my feelings. I thought of all the things I was not that I had wanted to be. I was not without my share of pretentions. My mornings here began with yoga instead of scanning LinkedIn for job listings as I would at home. No drive-through coffee and sugary bear-claw here; instead I stood chatting with the spandex clad trophy wives at the juice bar. An interloper with gaudy swimming gear—that was who I was at this spendy all-inclusive resort; an imposter.

I had helped Juan to construct the “Señor Matteo” of his choosing—not the Matt Zehen I was back in Manitoba.

“What about your home in Mexico City?” I asked, putting aside my own guilt, as if it did not matter. “Just curious—not accusing,” I quickly added.

Si, si, it’s true,” he said, his face showing tension. “But I often slept in that park, not next to it. There was no high-rise for me. I spent many days in the library. I used the drinking fountain, the lavatories… I made friends with the librarians, asked them questions.”

“And the books?” I interrupted.

Si, yes, the books! English language audio recordings of To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane. Many others. The books were my tutors—they started me on my journey to learn English. I stayed in the library on days when I had no work; spent nights in the park. The zanate got used to me. I copied them, and they copied me,” he said. Then he whistled and clucked in a precise imitation of the local flock. Several territorial males replied right away, sounding enraged.

We both laughed. “Muy macho,” Juan said. He continued after a pause. “I was the zanate of the legend and the library was the tortuga,” he said. “Do you know the story? Si?”

I shook my head no, glad to sense the easing of tensions between us. Juan told me the ancients’ story of the zanate who sat on the back of the wise sea turtle and learned its seven songs and then took them for its own—stole them, really.

“Love, Hate, Fear, Courage, Joy, Sadness, and Anger,” Juan said. “The seven passions of life. Amor, Odio, Miedo, Coraje, Alegría, Tristeza e Ira

We were quiet for a time, as were the birds. I thought with guilt about how I, not he, was more of the duplicitous zanate. I was hiding my own shame for having lost my easy job—easy compared to so many others. My pride prevented me from admitting what had happened… what I had allowed to happen. Pride, the eighth song perhaps? I asked myself. The one we all share and all deny? And yet I still felt I could not admit the indignity I had suffered; turned out like the trash. Not a leader, like those I mingled with around the bar, stuffing my small talk with echoes of “return on investment” and listening uncomfortably about trips to “the Algarve,” a place I was sure I could not find on a map.

Por favor, señor,” I said to him and held out a business card. I had brought the card to give to him today. “Here is my email. Let’s continue our talks. I don’t care who you were or who you weren’t. You have been my friend, and I want to remain yours.”

“You’re sure?” he asked politely. He tucked the hose under his arm and took the card from me.

I wanted to reply with the truth that stuck in my throat, chalky and tasting of bile.  I thought again of pride but said nothing, only smiled.

Juan studied the card I had given him, a leftover from my former employer. My home email was handwritten over the printed corporate address.

I watched the small, brown female zanate, gathered on the fresh cut grass, pecking at insects. Juan studied my card, his face troubled.

Señor Matteo,” Juan said, breaking our silence, “can you tell me please, are there any jobs available for a man like me who works hard and speaks good English? Jobs at this place where you work in Canada?”

I was a bit surprised and held up a finger for him to wait as I thought of my answer.

“Juan,” I began slowly, “mi amigo, maybe we should each accept what we have and who we are. It sounds like you want me to help you get you a new life, a new job in Canada. Ironically, I want what you have: a simple job living in nature beside the ocean. I want to stay here and study the birds. But even if we could make this exchange, we’d likely each be disappointed with the result.”

I liked the way my little speech sounded.

Juan stared at me. I fidgeted with my sunglasses. He looked away to watch a frigate bird soar, rising on an air current and then running down the wind, as if sliding sideways, with only a minute adjustment of its wings.

Señor,” Juan said, his voice dropping several degrees, no longer humble but suddenly taciturn. “I’m only asking for a small favour, small for a man like you, I would have thought. We’ve spoken together—you know my secrets.” He fingered my business card then studied it for several seconds. “It’s a simple question. Tell me, can you give me a job?” He paused, then unfolded the hose and resumed spraying the hedge. “Do you have, ah, autoridad? Are you even a Director?”

The surf roared just then, and a rogue wave knocked down the first row of lounge chairs. The gardening boss ran by towards the shore, shouting at Juan to leave what he was doing and come to help move the chairs back from the water.

Juan gave me a few seconds longer to respond but I was mute. He held my business card at arm’s length, glanced at it one last time and then flicked it over the hedge like a playing card. He turned off the hose and took a step towards the beach before pausing.

“Listen,” he said, stepping closer to me and lowering his voice. “There was no Mexico City for me. At all. That’s the truth, cabrón. I grew up less than 12 kilometres from here. I have never been anywhere else in the world. I want a job in Canada or the States and the only way to get it is to lie to you because my real story is not good enough for all of you rich people. It’s too plain. It’s beneath you. I needed to make up a story, something grandioso like the Seven Songs, to impress you and get you to help me.”

His boss shouted for him again from the surf and Juan looked anxiously in that direction, waving and yelling that he was coming.

¡Vuelve a Canadá, hombre!” he said to me, bitterly. “Just go! Study your own birds!”

With that, he squared his shoulders, turned his back and jogged towards the beach, scattering a group of zanate as he went. They circled once, then landed near a paper plate of nachos, left beside an unattended chaise. From the cold and sea-damp leftovers, their bodies bobbing and pecking, the hungry birds began to feast.

The Seven Songs” is published on TOEWS.IR by special permission of the author, Mitchell Toews, who holds the copyright.