23. The Castaway

el tiradito
Love to the sinners of the earth.

After days of blank mourning, a purpose comes to Inglorion in the night. He will visit a nearby shrine, El Tiradito. The name means “The Castaway,” and the memorial is dedicated to sinners and outcasts, souls too degraded and impure to be buried in hallowed ground. Tereus was a non-believer, criminal and occasional drunk; Inglorion feels a sudden, powerful conviction that there could be no better place to remember him.

He pockets a pen and notebook, his copy of the Iliad, and, on impulse, the flask of rum the murderers left behind. The streets are cool in the predawn glow. As he latches the door behind him, the cicadas start up their percussive, alien buzz. The birds chirp and chortle like an orchestra tuning up. He walks the few blocks to the decayed walkways of the Elysian Grove.

Long ago, when European settlers defeated the Apaches and laid railroad tracks, they spilled out of the Presidio walls and built an English bathing resort at the foot of the black mountain. The riverside must have been pretty: Thick with silver-leaved cottonwood trees, pure water welling up from the ground, an oasis nestled in a valley ringed with limestone peaks. To them, Cuk Son must have seemed like a Happy Valley, a land of peace and plenty.

The old gods saw, and perhaps they disapproved. After a few years, an earthquake shifted the river’s course. The springs dried up, the baths closed, and less fanciful businesses took over: Laundries and butchers and opium dens. The cottonwoods were felled for lumber, but the name Elysian Grove persisted. Even now, between the brick warehouses and clustered bungalows, it’s possible to trace the old river bed, and the winding paths of the vanished pleasure gardens.

el tiradito
El Tiradito, in Barrio Viejo.

El Tiradito sits on the perimeter of the Elysian Grove, on a vacant lot wedged between an abandoned cafe and a carneceria. As Inglorion approaches, he genuflects and makes the sign of the cross, like the local people do. As always, there are dozens of individual monuments clustered there, some old, some new. Countless pieces of paper have been wedged into the cracks and gaps in the adobe wall — prayers, wishes and hopes, expressions of grief and love and memory. The votive holders are painted with images of saints, or just with the words, Piensa en mi, think of me. A plea from the dead, placed here by the living, and renewed with wax and flame, with plastic flowers and photographs and coins and ribbon and flags.

Inglorion has been devout since childhood. He never received any formal religious instruction, but he’s always believed and sought out sacred places. He’s built elaborate shrines, sworn blood oaths. He’s dedicated every meal, every weapon practice, every victory in battle to the gods. Even in death, he believes. It’s as natural and necessary to him as breathing. Standing here, the sun rising behind him, Inglorion feels the outpouring of love and grief. It’s concentrated here, and wells up. Unlike the nearby spring and river, it has never run dry or shifted course. Surely the gods see this place and take pity on the people they created, their confusion and terror and grief.

He finds an unoccupied niche, lights a votive. He pulls out the flask of rum that he retrieved from Tereus’s house, and pours out a libation, whispering, “To the eternal glory of the Bringer of Light. To the pure, all things are pure.” 

The flame catches and steadies. The rum sinks into the sand. From there, it will make its slow way into the water table far below. 

There’s an ounce or two left in the bottle. He sniffs it cautiously. It doesn’t so much have a smell as a sensation of caustic heat. He shrugs. Holding his breath, he drinks it down. His eyes water and he smothers a coughing fit. It burns worse than an unfiltered cigarette. “Jesus fuck,” he mutters, and sets the bottle aside. 

He flips through, and finds a passage from Homer’s Iliad. The epic begins when the lion-hearted Achilles, “murderous and doomed,” denounces the Trojan war and refuses to fight. He says:

No wealth is worth my life!
Cattle and fat sheep can all be had for the raiding
tripods for trading, tawny-headed stallions.
But a man’s life cannot come back again
once it slips through a man’s clenched teeth.
Two fates bear me on the the day of death:
… If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy
my journey home is gone but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love
my pride, my glory dies
and the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

Achilles chooses glory and dies. His thirst for vengeance tempts him to slaughter the Trojan champion Hector, and to mutilate his corpse. The Iliad is a parade of death and destruction: Patroclus cut down by Hector, Hector killed by Achilles, Hector’s infant son slaughtered on the steps of the temple of Zeus, the Trojan woman enslaved. The stain of the Trojan war spreads far beyond the pages of the Iliad. Ancient stories of atrocity and revenge fuel history, art and architecture.

It’s said that after Achilles died in battle, he reigned over the Elysian Grove, a corner of the afterlife where dead warriors found companionship and rest. He enjoyed the peace and plenty he never knew in life.

When European settlers left the Presidio and built on the shores of the river, they thought they’d found the resting place of Achilles, the land beyond the sunset, at the ends of the earth.

Of course, they hadn’t. Cuk Son has its own gods and stories.

Inglorion realizes with a start what Tereus intended all along: To restore water to the earth, and to bring the land back. He created a sweet, harmonious and shaded place, grew corn and beans and squash, and the local herbs and peppers. Over time, his gardens drew monarch butterflies and bees, lizards and rabbits, hawks and doves. Tereus was a castaway, in a land that he could heal.

Inglorion pulls out pen and notebook and kneels down awkwardly. In his very bad handwriting he scratches:

I love you, father.
Rest in peace.

He folds the paper up into a tiny square, and wedges it into the wall, along with countless other prayers.

The sun has fully risen. The heat and glare are oppressive. He’s flushed and sweating, and feels unsteady from the rum. He pockets the pen and notebook. As he walks, his tears mingle with the cries of mourning doves and the song of mockingbirds.

He arrives at the little shotgun shack where he and Lucius live. As he reaches for the door handle, he stops, withdraws his hand. He sees the truth, and it shocks him into paralysis. He stands there, blankly looking at the worn wooden portal.

None of his memories matter. He’s dead. The world he knows has vanished.

He’s not a bastard or a half-breed. Citizenship is meaningless. He was born into a locked cell, true. The bars and walls have disappeared, along with everything else.

He laughs aloud, reaches for the door, walks through.

door in barrio viejo

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.

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