11°38′11″ N 86°20′59″ W: The Sweet Water and the Salt

At Rio Mar, Nicaragua

I hear in ecstatic counterpoint the songs of a dozen birds in only ten seconds as they roost in the neem, eucalyptus, palm, and mango trees that surround my father-in-law Bernie and me as we swing like a spider’s dinner in hammocks strung up in the rancho at Rio Mar. I think, there were at least thirty different bird calls in the air. I can only differentiate a dozen. Even though I know that I missed them, I don't mind, and I can accept not having heard them all. Is that what aphasia is like? All at once, the singing stops. Silence.

In the gathering dusk, three stately palomino chanchi sashay down the middle of the deeply-rutted dirt road outside the gates past the “Huevos de Yankees,” (a useless, stalky plant that pops up uninvited all over Nicaragua that gives inedible, tennis-ball-sized green fruit just below its crown) on their way to what used to be Cuban Pete’s place up the hill. Released by Yvette from their pen for the night, the dogs streak past us, mewling, to the outcropping of sonsiquite on the river side of the house, there to stream like champagne over the rocks and out to the ocean where the tide runs very, very high. The first sound to return, now that the sun has set, is that of the surf. It pounds like distant artillery; the roosting birds' feathers rustle as they jostle for position; the northern wind’s whoosh blends with the ocean’s deep song; and the drone of winter cicadas joins the rhythmic, hollow, thumping sound of iguanas on the house’s metal roof fucking.

Bernie is asleep in the hammock next to mine. Aphasic from the post-operative stroke that he suffered six years ago, his world no longer makes much sense to him. The obsessive web-spinning to which I’ve subjected the skein of my memories in an effort to construct from them a meaningful narrative is the equivalent to him of a man brushing cobwebs from before his eyes. The stroke took away his ability to read his beloved Shakespeare, Melville, and Joyce; to consistently recognize his children; to identify my sons; to know with complete certainty, even, where he is. 

His eyes open, he pitches forward slightly, and waves his hand before his face. “All these people I love were looking at me and I was dead!” he says, still in a waking dream. “You were there; the woman I live with; my sister—. Do you get it?” He asks.”Yes,” I reassure him. “That was your wife Gilda, your sons, your sister and her husband, … and your daughter.” He smiles suddenly, “the one who sang!” He cries. “You were waking up after your stroke,” I explain. “They wouldn’t talk to me,” he continues, “but I could hear her singing, and I knew she wanted me to come back.” “You did. You did,” I reassure him. “And the first thing I thought was that I was dead and that every second now is a bonus,” he says. “Do you get it?” “Yes,” I promise him. “But I didn’t make it all the way back,” he says. “We’ve got the best parts, Pappy,” I say. 

"Our coordinates, according to my phone," I tell him, "are: 11°38′11″ N  86°20′59″ W. We are two old, white-haired, gringo Quixotes painted red by the sun worrying about our wives and children who’ve been shopping all day in Masaya and Diriamba." "So, that's where we are," he chuckles. There is no comfort in exactitude. “Are you hungry?” I ask him. “No,” he answers out of principle. “Maybe a cup of coffee.” “I’m putting some eggs and cheese on a tortilla and making a fresh pot of coffee for myself,” I say, airily. “OK,” he says, and falls asleep. 

Since there’s no time here except for the enormous seasonal rhythm of the stars and tides, he picks up where he left off when I help him out of the hammock and place the good, hot coffee in his hands. Digging into his eggs with a will, he observes, “they love us here, kid. I really don’t know why. But they do.” I don’t answer. Tearing a warm tortilla in half, I hold it to my nose and inhale its wholesomeness—so like the way my son smelled when he was born. I hand it to him, observing, “we’re very lucky guys, Pappy.” He takes it and uses it to scoop up his eggs. We finish the meal in agreeable silence. 

Just when we start missing them most, Mama calls Yvette’s phone with the message that they’re all fine and that they will be home in a couple of hours. We don’t discuss it, but each feels the other’s relief. We’re free to pretend for a few more hours that we’re self-sufficient. After we wash the dishes, Bernie climbs back into his hammock.  Just as he’s about to nod off, he observes, “I don’t know why I’m still here. I can’t really do anything any more except love all of you.” He’s suspended again in the web between waking and dreaming, between life and the other. I clear my throat lightly. He opens his eyes. “Orson Welles is supposed to have written, ‘We’re born alone. We live alone. We die alone. Only through love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we are not alone’,” I tell him. “Well put,” he says, closing his eyes, for the moment mollified.

It’s late. “The eggs were good,” he says. “Gramma made them. I only heated them up,” I say. We’re quiet. Long after I think he’s asleep, he rolls over and mutters, “Huevos de Yankees.” I chuckle. He winks. No more sounds of birds, iguanas, livestock, or even children. Just the gentle heartbeat of the crickets, the occasional surge of the breeze over the Rio Casares, and the sea comfortingly caressing the shore. 

Bernie is fast-asleep, and I’m half-awakened by the well-thumbed copy of Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World that slips from my hand when Harold steers the Trooper in. My older boy carries in groceries—pastelitos, picos, and local coffee from Diriamba; Harold shoulders in a six-gallon jug of potable water; the women ferry in presents to take back to the States. We allow our younger son, who has fallen asleep during the drive home despite the wild roads, to doze on in the jeep. Gilda turns down the boys’ beds; her mother begins stowing things in the kitchen; Yvette closes and locks the gate; and I awaken Bernie and guide him inside. 

Returning to the jeep, I gather my son in my arms and bury my nose in his fine, long, straight hair—exactly like mine at his age—and smell the burnt leña and dust of the market in it as I carry him to bed. The next time we return, Bernie may be gone, I think, climbing into bed with the boys, pulling them close, and singing them their secret songs. A few hours later, disentangling myself, I rise.  Alone, I stroll to the ocean with a cup of coffee and honor the dazzling full Blue Paschal Moon—the first to be followed the next day by Easter Sunday since 1714. The surf intensifies as the sun begins its ascent behind the trees; the pelicans begin to rustle; and there’s the staccato nicker of a horse. As dawn breaks, instead of the sound of the rooster’s call, comes the plaintive howl, nine beats long, starting low, rising, and dying as it falls, of a lone hound, from across the estuary where the sweet water of the river meets the salt of the sea.