Michael rowed the boat ashore and moored it to a gnarled stake. He reached into the fold of his turtleneck sweater and pulled out a map drawn on the back of a wallet-sized photograph. In a clump of cattails he found the beat-up giftbox marked “Dirt Towers,” his orders attached. Pulses of fear weakened his arms. They felt like tubes of cortisone. He flipped the map over to the photo of his lady-in-waiting and drew strength from her thick healthy hair, the color of almonds and saddles.
A wide plain stretched out before him like an old document encased in glass. It was beautiful space, downhill, south. A rickety black carriage, contaminated with rubella, waited for him nearby. He climbed in and massaged the inoculation marks on his arm as the rig perambulated across the bare ranchland.
After many hours he arrived at a hacienda. He was led into a room where a spectrum of fruit and meats the color of makeup were spread across a rough table. Michael ate slowly, at the pace of his own thoughts, staring out the window at a gang of shimmering black retrievers playing in the distant grass.
He slept further down the road in the shack marked on his map. It was set in a chaparral of short dry trees. Inside, there was a strong fire going and two sets of tracks on the floor. One walking backwards dragging the other’s heels through the dirt. Michael sat down on a bench and closed his eyes. Saw a timber wolf shattered on a rock slide. He lifted his head. The shack was wallpapered with Sears catalogues. Black sewing machines floated like deathships on the walls.
In the morning he traveled further into the countryside periodically reading his printed instructions which began “Our chief resolve … ”
At midday he arrived at the forest’s edge. A campfire smoldered like the ruins of a medieval city. A few minutes passed during which he knew he was being watched by his contact. Finally a gaucho emerged from the foliage astride a giant Appaloosa. His hip holsters held two large aerosol canisters. The gaucho introduced himself as Manuel and handed Michael one of the cans.
“What is this for?”
“Every object in space is a memory system. You will need it.”
Michael let it pass. Manuel dismounted and explained that his horse was named Treinta y Tres after Uruguay’s thirty-three founding fathers. He tied her to a fallen log.
He lifted up a heavy bough as if it were a tent flap and motioned for Michael to follow him into the woods.
“What about the box?”
They entered the woods and walked silently apace. There was no variance to the forest. Every hundred yards seemed to repeat the features of the last. Pendulous hives and sad little creeks appeared rhythmically as if the landscape were a primitive computer program.
“Manuel, can you tell me why I’ve been sent here, what the purpose of my mission is?”
“Only that people have been waiting for years.”
Manuel quickly changed the subject to the Battle of San Cosme Gate which was fought in these woods. He illustrated the flight of arrows with his fingers and traced battle plans on his palms as they walked. This took many hours and brought them to a clearing where a large white meetinghouse or church drew the woodlands all around it.
It looked deserted. Cats circulated the building like worms about a skull. Michael grabbed the gaucho’s arm.
“Manuel, please prepare me, tell me why I am here.”
He wrested his arm from Michael and shook his head darkly.
“The world doesn’t have a name, my friend. You have seen the signatures fade.”
Michael pulled out his map and instructions. He gasped. The paper was blank.
They entered the dim meetinghouse. Curved benches filled with peasants surrounded a small sand-covered stage. They took a seat in the back just as a man in a black turtleneck mounted the stage with an acoustic guitar.
“Who is he?”
“He has come to tell your story.”
The audience looked like they had been waiting for years. The musician adjusted his chair in the deep sand. He looked up into the rafters for a moment, searching for more time. When there was none left he began to sing.