Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of our serial novel, Over the Edge, each chapter written by a different author. Click to read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5 and Chapter 6.
“May I go with you?” Cynthia Curry asked the young man.
Mateo looked at her. “Are you sure? The road is kind of rough.”
“As I said, I wasn’t always a college provost.” She smiled, feeling a sudden glow as if she’d already been in the sun.
Mateo pulled over an ancient motorbike. It was the kind you’d see in old French movies. Jean Seberg and Jean Paul Belmondo. He said something in Spanish to Rigoberto, who nodded and took off in the car. Mateo threw his leg over the bike and jumped on the seat. Then he motioned for her to climb on the back.
“I don’t suppose you have a helmet.”
“You’re safe with me,” he said, kicking the pedal. “I am a curandero, you know.”
“So I’ve heard. A medicine man…” She paused. “Really?”
“You tell me later.”
An avowed realist – despite forays to a Buddhist retreat in Vermont, a Goddess coven in the Catskills and a mikveh in the Red Tent – Cynthia’s skepticism was rising like a dark snake. So was her fear. Was Mateo some sort of spook? Had she suddenly found herself in a John Grisham novel? But she wasn’t a heroine type. She needed her sulfate-free hair conditioner and blow dryer. Stop it! She reminded herself the reason for coming to Panama was to find Zain Toma, who, up until several days ago, was the economics professor at Pine Rock College. She had hired him and ended up being somehow responsible for him.
It had been strange when Ronald Fairbank offered to send her to Panama. But she recalled a favorite Kurt Vonnegut quote: “Peculiar traveling suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”
And now she was dancing! Cynthia leaned closer to Mateo. She could feel his latte skin stretched tight over his thin but muscular frame. At that moment, she decided to suspend her disbelief. He revved the engine. The motor whirred between her legs.
They rode on a dusty road, pock-marked with deep cavities and stones. The rainforest surrounded them on both sides. Huge, succulent leaves of palms swayed listlessly in the slight breeze. Egrets and pelicans flew above them. A shepherd boy with a wooden staff followed several goats up a hill toward the horizon.
Now they entered the rainforest on what looked like an animal trail. The little bike wound up, down, between trees. This certainly was unusual, but she wasn’t complaining despite the bouncing up and down over the now-nonexistent road. Several times Cynthia cried out, but the bike had no muffler and Mateo could not hear her.
They stopped in front of a small thatched hut, almost completely obscured by the towering vegetation around it. A young man ran out to them, waving his hands frantically. Then he began speaking in rapid Spanish. He kept saying, “Mami, mami… Sus ojos! No puede ver! “ Her eyes! She can’t see!
Cynthia watched silently.as a dark-skinned child, a girl of about five, walked out of the hut, leading a seemingly blind young woman with a long black plait snaking down her back. “Mami!” the girl called out in anguish.
Mateo slowly approached the young mother, speaking softly in Spanish to her. But also lulling her with his voice. He came closer, almost crooning to her. Cynthia didn’t understand the words, but she felt his loving compassion. “Si, si…” he whispered. “Don’t worry.”
The little girl helped her mother to sit on a tree trunk nearby. He asked the young boy for cold water, then he sat down next to her. The boy brought a glass of water.
Mateo pulled a white handkerchief from the pouch on the leather belt he wore around his waist.
“Cierra tus ojos,” he said softly.”Esta bien. Eastas segura.” Close your eyes. You are good. You are safe.
He raised the woman’s face. Dipping the corner of the handkerchief into the glass of water, he slowly laced her eyes with drops of water. As he did this, he recited some kind of incantation. Cynthia watched in amazement, as did the children. “Si, si…” he continued. “Ya veras…ya veras…” You will see. He continued like this for several minutes.
The girl grew impatient, kicking a rock. The boy wanted to know “Cuado?” When would their mother could look at them again? Like she was before, their mother, who beheld them with love in her eyes.
Cynthia’s eyes were large with wonder, but also doubt.
Mateo stood up. “Repeat, pretty one. Contare hasta diez…”
“Diez,” she repeated softly.
“Ocho, siete, seis, cinco, quarto, tres, dos, uno.” As he called out each number, she repeated after him. They all waited breathlessly. “Abre tus ojos, mi dulce.” Open your eyes.”
The girl opened her eyes. She blinked several times. Mateo held the handkerchief several inches from her. She took it from him and wiped her face.
Mateo smiled. “Como estas.”
“Mucho mejor,” she said.
She leaned over and kissed his hands. “Muchos gracias, Senor Mateo. Me gusta.”
Cynthia and Mateo walked over to his motorbike.
“How did you do that?” Cynthia asked.
Mateo smiled. “It’s a form of hypnosis. Something must have frightened her.”
“Where did you learn that?”
“Ah, we curanderos have our secrets.”
She climbed back on the bike, wrapping her arms around his boyish waist. As they rode through the lush rainforest, Cynthia’s imagination was enflamed.
Yes, he was at least 10 years her junior. But did that really matter? He was the first man after a long draught who appealed to her. There had been the endless, hapless dates from Match.com and Mass Singles. It was ugly and humiliating.
His silky dark skin. She wanted to run her fingers over his shoulders, his hard chest, his sinuous back. But how could she, a college provost on a mission to find her missing professor, indulge the fantasy?
When they returned to where she had met him, there was no traffic jam. He stopped the bike and helped her off. “I must return home now.”
Rigoberto sat in the limo, his eyes closed.