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Nature Abhors a Vacuum
By Jala Pfaff
--Inspirado en Talari Lodge, C.R.
It was her first night alone in--how long? Well, a very long time; her husband had left before dawn this morning in a flurry of nylon zips to go climb Chirripó--and her evening was not going well. Really not at all. She couldn't believe what she was witnessing. Here in their tiny, perfectly square hotel room in Valle Nuboso, a nature documentary could be filmed, she thought, an episode of frigging Wild Kingdom. About an hour ago, she'd noticed a huge brown spider skittering around the limits of the room, and she'd reluctantly gotten up to deal with it. It had escaped into a crack in the wall, however, which she cautiously examined, and that was when she noticed the sinuous black flood of millipedes pouring into the room like Tokyo commuters desperate to catch a subway car.
Horrified, she'd leaped back onto the bed, where she'd been attempting to interest herself in reading their Costa Rican birding manual--she'd completely run out of novels to read, and fervently hoped her husband (or her possibly soon-to-be ex-husband; after eighteen years, what an alien thought) would not take longer than the probable single overnight for the climb--and tried to decide on a course of action re the millipedes. She was embarrassingly squeamish when it came to insects of any kind, and it was one of the best indulgences, she would always tell new acquaintances, that her husband bestowed upon her: that of being willing to take care of all situations creepy-crawly. She steeled herself to not look back to the perimeter of the room, to the floors, where she would only see things she most definitely did not want to see. Which is how she noticed the enormous tan-and-white moth gently fanning its wings just above her head, on the wall near the sickly 25-watt bulb.
It took her four gruesome tries with their Lonely Planet Costa Rica to whack it into apparent death. She hoped its final twitches were just nerve reactions, like everyone always said, and not signs of imminent resurrection. Afterwards, every few moments, as she tried in vain to lose herself in descriptions of plumage and birdcalls, she felt as if something were crawling on her, and had to stop reading and fearfully lean over to inspect the area in question before desperately scratching and hoping that the source of the next itch would not be from the big brown spider, returned, or perhaps one of the millipedes that had managed to find her, thus triggering an influx of its masses of cousins.
When she sensed that she had to pee, a new dread overtook her. Getting up to go use the bathroom was an entire process and one which, in this country, she'd discovered, always held unwelcome surprises from the creepy-crawly kingdom. She waited until her bladder was within moments of exploding, reading--as if cramming for a test--of the Trogonidae family and their heterodactyl toe alignment, then, with a sigh, she first leaned down and peered at her clogs on the floor. The outer visual reconnaissance: check. Then she gingerly took hold of one clog by the heel and very quickly smacked the shoe on the wooden floor, hard as possible. Then peered in, making sure her face didn't come too close: shoe one, check. Then the other shoe, out of which something small and black came scurrying and scuttled away into a dark corner of the room. She shuddered, finally got up the courage, fed by extreme internal discomfort, to put on her clogs and stand up.
Next came the bathroom trauma itself: for every trip into the bathroom, entire battalions of new and horrible bugs would have recolonized it, forcing her to make uncomfortable decisions about each one. This time there was an enormous glossy black-and-green spider in the tub which she absolutely could not deal with. Although she was not religious, this time she quietly pulled the tattered vinyl shower curtain closed and truly prayed that it not move while she used the toilet, and then prayed some more, that it would go back to wherever it had come from, that she please not have to deal with a spider as big as an extended human hand. She had no idea what she'd do about having to pee again in a few hours.
On the way back to her bed--she was in mid-leap towards it--new movement on the floor caught her eye. She landed on the bed, scrambled up onto all fours, and peered, terrified, at columns and columns--legions--of ants which had apparently come in from under the crack in the door and were busily, efficiently organizing the dismemberment and removal of the moth she'd left for dead.
She suddenly thought she understood how it must feel to be a castaway floating on an ocean raft, surrounded by sharks.
The first time she went for a meal, lunch (having slept late that first day, both relishing her aloneness and dreading facing the insect life--though fortunately she found it all gone in the light of full day), she hadn't brought along anything to read, not even the birding manual. She'd had no inkling that they were the only guests currently staying there, and that she would not, in fact, see any other clients during the entire three days she would be spending alone at Valle Nuboso Lodge. It was during her first solitary meal (which the cook deposited upon the table with a “Provecho!” and then, making sure she began to eat, roared off in a jeep, presumably to her own family, thus staunching any possibility of conversation) that, desperately bored, she looked around, really looking, at her surroundings, and noticed a ragtag collection of plywood shelves in the corner. She'd discovered the lodge's library, a motley collection of years of travelers' accumulated castoffs. The house rules were tacked up on an incredibly faded piece of paper, in Spanish, Dutch, German, French, and English (in that order): Biblio: Well come to travellers! If you take book please to leave one other. Other wise is free.
She opened a yellowed, water-stained copy of The Lucille Ball Story, its pre-printed price a remarkable $1.50. She looked inside the cover: Signet, 1974. How long since anyone had read this? Had anyone ever read it? Or had it merely gone from garage sale to garage sale, until it somehow ended up making a little home for itself here, over a quarter-century later, in this tiny improbable place where no one who actually lived here could even read it?
Desi had carried Lucy over the threshold of--his dressing room at the Roxy. They had been pelted with rice by--the theater audience. Their careers kept them separated most of the time.
She was basically puritanical, shy, conservative, and domestic despite her career drive--a “day person.” He was lusty, egotistical, spoiled, and something of a hell-raiser--a “night person.”
The last thing they'd talked about, while he was packing the night before he left for Chirripó--discussed calmly, genteelly--was whether they should finally do it, get divorced. There was no acute crisis, just the usual suspects, the same murderers of their friends' marriages: mutual accumulation of indifference, lack of affection, not much in common anymore.
Everyone hoped to see the glorious quetzal, of course. Sure. It's all one ever heard talked about at other tables in tourist-filled restaurants and hotels. But, leafing through the color pages of their bird book, she thought she'd feel satisfied if she just spotted, say, a mot-mot. That would be good enough for her. She decided to make this her goal while she was “stranded” here--not that she was really stranded, of course; who wouldn't kill for a couple of days of pure relaxation time, with three meals a day served to you personally, no job to go to, no errands to run, no responsibilities?
She picked out Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a huge, hefty volume, and surprisingly, a newer book amongst old things discarded here. She wondered: had he written it himself, or did he have a ghost writer? She thought about how he and his wife had split up after all that. So some problems were insurmountable, no matter what.
I dedicate this book to my six children, Madiba and Makaziwe (my first daughter), who are now deceased, and to Makgatho, Makaziwe, Zenani, and Zindzi, whose support and love I treasure; to my twenty-one grandchildren and three great-grandchildren who give me great pleasure; and to all my comrades, friends, and fellow South-Africans whom I serve and whose courage, determination, and patriotism remain my source of inspiration.
No mention of Winnie at all, then? she thought. After all the years they'd been together?
She had seen, at a vendor's stall a few days ago, one of those adorable baby-sized T-shirts that read Alguien que me quiere fue a Costa Rica y me trajo este lindo regalo. She'd been unable to resist buying it. She didn't even attempt to bargain. It was just too tiny, too cute. Her husband had been furious with her--when it became obvious that it was impossible to dissuade her from purchasing it, he threw up his arms in disgust and wandered away down the trash-strewn tourist lane without her. The vendors' eyes were big with curiosity. When she caught up to him, the baby shirt tucked under her arm, he refrained from looking at it or mentioning it, and she followed his lead in this, the not mentioning it.
It now lay rolled like a filthy secret in the unmatched plastic bag they'd reluctantly handed over at her request, expertly packed at the very bottom of her backpack, with dirty laundry, her fleece jacket for when they got off the plane at home, and other items she wouldn't be needing again on the rest of this trip. If nothing else, on these many vacations she and her husband had taken together--to Bhutan, to Andalusia, to the Marquesas, to Argentina and so many other countries she'd forget some if she tried to list them all--she'd learned to become a truly excellent packer.
The problem was that she had no one to give the little shirt to. She and her husband had no children. They hadn't wanted any; they both felt life was complicated enough without adding kids to the mix. (Well, they at least had that in common.) Moreover, they knew no one who had any. Childlessness was not only a choice, these days, it seemed, amongst their circle of friends--their kind of people an unwelcome echo born into the idleness of her mind--it was the only choice.
It seemed she could remember, in great detail, every child's face they'd seen since coming to Costa Rica--and there had been a lot of them, really a remarkable quantity. Tico children were everywhere. She felt that if she only concentrated a tiny bit--and after all, she had nothing but time right now--she could recall each one, bring each sweet face back to her mind's eye to scrutinize it, enjoy it, at leisure. Sparkling brown eyes, and also a great deal of blue ones. Brown curls, and also a great deal of blond ones--because for some reason opaque to her (and which her husband claimed to understand perfectly; surely it involved politics and/or money), Costa Rica seemed to be being recolonized (and she was sorry, she really was, but that was the only word which seemed to fit) by Dutch and Germans. They'd come and were still arriving in droves, it seemed, to buy up land, to run hotels and hostels like the one she was currently staying at, and to interbreed (what was wrong with her today, that she was thinking in these terms?!) with the locals, producing offspring half-Costa Rican, half-Dutch; or half-Tico, half-German, pobrecitos kids burdened with ridiculous monikers like Carlitos Van der Meer, like Conchita Munchhäuser.
Today, she was certain, she would spot a mot-mot. She had a feeling about it. She reread the bird guide's description of their habits, their preferred locales, and set off, determined. She saw several smaller, more common birds--something that resembled the red-winged blackbird of her Midwestern youth; could it be the same one, this far south?--and a sort of dirty chartreuse-colored one. Even a couple of hummingbirds, whose alacrity made her heart skip a beat and doubt whether she'd really seen them at all.
Sweaty and uncomfortable, she let a small part of her mind wonder where her husband was at this precise moment and whether the hike was going well for him, whether he was all right. Out of nowhere, she suddenly remembered that, in a rare moment of light-heartedness, her husband had decided that Dutch gringos should be called dingos, rendering her helpless with giggles. She laughed out loud now with that recollection, scaring off the few birds near her. Brushing off the prickly weeds that had already attached themselves to her, burrowing, virtually growing, in the past half-hour, into her clothing, she got up and headed back to their room.
She suddenly realized, with a start, that she couldn't remember a single one of all the many tourist couples they'd met having a child with them--not the Germans, not the other Americans, the Swiss, the French, the Japanese, not even the Dutch from dinner two nights ago. Did they not have any, or had they simply left them at home during their trip? Somehow, she doubted the latter--wouldn't they probably want to talk about them over lodge group dinners, if that were the case, show their pictures around, compare stories: so how old are yours? There'd been none of that--only excited mentions of wildlife or volcano peaks spotted, recounting of miles hiked, poison-dart frogs proudly held or laughingly refused.
Was there something inherently fecund about this land, something that inspired fertility if one but spent enough time here? Or did it have something to do with the Ticos themselves? It wasn't the kind of thing one could broach in polite conversation: Why are you all reproducing, anyway? What's your deal?
While crouching in some prickly brush, binoculars at the ready (how she'd had to fight with her husband over who got to retain the binoculars while he climbed Chirripó--she'd been almost at the point of tears when she'd finally convinced him that she needed them more, as he'd be busy climbing, watching the path without time for diversion, whereas she'd have unlimited opportunities for bird-watching), sweating bullets though she wasn't even moving (the approximately quarter-mile walk to this location had made her soak through every layer of clothing, and now the mosquitoes were beginning to find her), she remembered a conversation she'd overheard about a week ago between some teenagers, locals on the coast, in Puerto Viejo de Limón. Their Spanish was slow, tropical, languorous, far easier for her to understand than that of Andalusia, where they'd gone three years before, where her ear for Spanish had been sorely challenged. There had been two dark girls walking together, sashaying really, arm in arm, obviously enjoying the sultry night (whereas she herself had been suffering terribly, being bitten by flying insects, her inner thighs and bra straps chafing, new blisters forming by the minute under every sandal strap) as well as all the attention they were getting in their skimpy outfits. As they strolled down the main drag, they picked up an admirer for about a block, a dark young man who followed on their heels like one of the many hopeful stray dogs. He greeted them, then made conversation: “So what are you girls going to study? Are you students? You going to study something?”
They (giggling): Um…Yeah…
He: That's great, great…
They (giggling some more): Yeah, that's right.
He: That's great. That's good, 'cause you know, that way you have something, you know?
He: Yeah, that way you have something of your own if the guy takes off, you know?
He: What are you gonna be, doctors? Lawyers?
They: Yeah. Doctors, yeah, we're gonna be doctors.
He: Oh, yeah, doctors, that's great, doctors.
They: Yeah, that's right. Or maybe, um, maybe…what's it called…journalists!
He: Oh, yeah, great! Because that way you have something, right? If the guy leaves. 'Cause that's how guys are.
He: I mean, yeah! 'Cause that's how guys are.
Her husband was annoyed with her all the rest of that evening, at her precipitous change in mood, her sudden feeling of depression, of hopelessness. She'd translated the conversation for him--besides the fact that she knew Spanish well, she'd always been the one to make sure to check out library books and tapes and learn, ahead of time, enough of the language or languages of the regions they'd be traveling in to not appear too awfully ignorant. But the adolescents' dialogue had struck her husband not as tragic but as funny, and he'd roared with laughter. For the first time, she thought to imagine him traveling on his own, without her, in the future, not speaking a word of the native tongue.
Twenty minutes after climbing into the brush, unable to bear the sauna-like atmosphere, she climbed out again, binoculars unused, her skin damp, itching and crawling, with a feeling of angry certainty that her husband would not mind the much narrower windows he'd see the world through.
At the “library,” after her lonely lunch--which she ate as slowly as possible, managing to drag it out for almost an hour, reading Costa Rica: Adventures in Nature all the while--she noticed a tiny, dusty, yellow booklet wedged underneath some paperbacks. She fished it out, blew some of the dust off. Bhavan's Manual of Faith, it said, with some lettering elsewhere on the cover which she supposed might be Hindi or at least some Indian language, judging from the name of the booklet. Faith, she thought. What an old-fashioned, outdated concept. She wondered if the number 13 was lucky or unlucky for Indians, and opened the manual to that page. Most of what she saw there reminded her of Bible-type stuff, Christian stuff--redemption for whosoever believeth in Me kind of thing--which surprised her. Neither one of them was religious, which had been a big selling point with each other--something they never thought about anymore. Although most of page thirteen seemed murky as the Ganges (it could be the translation, she thought, wanting to give it the benefit of the doubt), one tiny passage, oddly enough passage number thirteen on page thirteen, did ring with a little more clarity:
He who has no ill-will to any being, who is friendly and compassionate, free from egoism and self-sense, even-minded in pain and pleasure and patient.
She flipped randomly to a page near the back, a quote from Gandhi:
I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves and re-creates.
She looked again at the cover, finding this time, in tiny typeface, a quote attributed to Rigveda, whoever or whatever that might be: “Let noble thoughts come to us from every side.”
Back out in the bush--or was that word only used in Australia? It certainly felt like a term that should be used here--surely this would be her last chance to spot a mot-mot, because her husband would be returning, and then they'd both be going home the day after tomorrow. Although going home to what? And where was her husband? He must've gotten delayed by fog, they'd been told that happened a lot to the hikers up there.
She suddenly noticed something green moving near her feet. She focused on it, gasped, leaped backwards. She'd heard about these, sure, but never expected to see them: they must be leaf-cutter ants, each individual carrying a little green flag, as if marching in an army, waving it. Everything here, she thought, gets eaten or carried away by something else, recycled immediately after it dies--or even before it dies. Was that merciful or cruel? Would her marriage, also, have an ending so neat and quick? Was it, too, so easily disposed of? Though the cannibalization she felt she already understood well enough.
It was now almost dusk of the third day-time to start thinking about what might be served for dinner. She was going to go crazy. If she had to spend one more night alone, dealing with the night creatures by herself--the spiders, millipedes and whatever it was that took up residence each night outside her window and chirp--hooted at random intervals with a screech that sent her spine into up-and-down chills every time, no matter how prepared she thought she was for the next one… But perhaps more than anything, she was beginning to realize that what she could no longer bear was the suspense. The not knowing about the fate of their marriage. Will you stay or will you go now?, a song lyric in her mind. Punk rock? Did she even have the wording right? Maybe it was Will I stay or will I go now? A long time ago.
She found herself back at the “library,” this time pulling off the shelf a musty, broken-spine paperback called Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey. She glanced, as was now her habit, at the first few pages: 1968. Sold to someone, at some time, for $2.50, the price marked in pencil, though the original price was printed at $3.50. For Josh and Aaron, read the dedication. Who were Josh and Aaron, and where were they now? she wondered. His friends? His brothers? His sons?
It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they've been luckier than I.
For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces--in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child's hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl's thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind--what else is there? What else do we need?
She heard a sudden clattering behind her outside the door, the muffled thud of a heavy backpack being dropped onto stones, a sigh of relief, of contentment, then an impromptu chatter of voices--a shock, though not an unpleasant one, to her quieted nervous system, now more in tune with the frogs and cicadas than to other, garrulous homo sapiens. The voices belonged to the Dutch lodge owner--whom she herself hadn't seen since they'd checked in all those days ago; where had he been?--and to her husband.
She took a deep breath and, the book still cradled in her hands, turned around to meet him.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey. Ballantine: 1968.
Bhavan's Manual of Faith, by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
The Lucille Ball Story, by James Gregory. Signet: 1974.
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela. Little, Brown, and Company: 1994, 1995.
Costa Rica: Adventures in Nature, by Ree Strange Sheck. John Muir Publications: 1998.
© Copyright 1997, 2024, The Fairfield Review Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Document last modified on: 11/11/2007