The Weeping LizardBy Olivier WEBER Sofitel Santa Clara Carthagène
At the beginning, there was the bottle. As a rule, it often ended like this, with a glass or more to wet the whistle, but this time it was from the start, from the very beginning. The sea was shaken-up, the waves a bit rebellious and the Cartagenan shore was charged with sea spray which whipped the rare onlooker as the sun literally fell from a well dug in the dark tropical clouds. I had decided, come hell or high water, or above all high winds, to go have a look at the small spit of land beyond the Spanish castle. The ramparts are eternal crossing points. The doors opening onto the sea give you the hope of distant horizons. The lovers are not wrong there, swallowed up between the walls as much as to hide as to dream of the open sea. And there, followed by Katarina in worn-out leather sandals, in front of a little gatehouse of rounded stones once destined to protect the Eldorado coast, I spotted what I was looking for, a floating object playing in the waves. Katarina had come to Cartagena reluctantly, weary of my geological researcher obsessions, too often immersed in his papers and sedimentary or igneous rock samples, his blocks of mica and gneiss. In exploring the karst caverns, it is true that I had forgotten the strata of affection. The continental drift generated the sentimental drift. Stones had got the better of passion. This visit represented love’s last chance, a gamble, double or nothing. No threats in Katarina’s words but for months I have felt we were on the edge. I was counting on the charm of the old walls, the sea air and Latin America’s own magic to save what could still be saved. It did not displease me to know that the hotel was a former convent, a bastion of faith that became the place of redemption for a sinking couple. After all, because of the intensive research, the isolation to study my precious geological veins, nocturnal furies to prepare communications, monastic reflections… I, myself, had become a kind of monk, for better or worse. That Katarina had accepted to follow me all the way to Colombia was already miraculous. I therefore hoped that her touch of craziness and “borderline” facet would keep us far from the precipice forever.
The bottle in the sea danced in the tides, embraced the jumps and drops, avoided the baroque pearl rocks of the Caribbean coast.. While Katarina was entertaining herself throwing pebbles in the waves, I distinctly saw the bottleneck rise and fall which seemed to point out its half-full stomach; an object which appeared and disappeared in the beam of light that the celestial curtain let through like a divine eye indicating the road to redemption. I moved closer, bypassing the gatehouse, captivated by the glass bubble that was slowly nearing the shore, as if it knew its tiny pathway. Yes, it really was a message in a bottle that was preparing its return to solid ground, on a deserted beach, carried by the sea winds and the scent of mystery.
Curiously, it was a lizard that put me on the track. In our ocher-walled Santa Clara hotel room, facing the Caribbean Sea, a rustling pulled me from the slumber that the breeze fluttering the bougainvillea and palm branches had plunged me into. The lizard with smooth, shiny blue scales was in no way bothered by my wakening or frightened by my coming closer. What more unproductive relaxation could I offer myself after after the Geology seminar at the Cartagena Faculty of Sciences? To forget the obsession with facts and the diktat of exact sciences, scientists love games of chance, the paths of uncertainty. This reptile was inviting me there. Katarina was sleeping in the armchair, a book by Socrates in hand. The previous evening, she had read a small manual in Spanish on Sierra Nevada Indian philosophy and she said that the Greek thinkers and the Kogi tribe shamans should have met. Katarina always amazed me as she compensated for her starlet role in the television series It Will Be A Harder Night, shot in the Marseille Calanques, by diving into philosophical works.
-It helps you get through! If I were you, at the University of Nice, I would spend my time being an extra in a TV series. To each his own oblivion activator!
Oblivion….the small saurian excelled in the subject. He was raking over the leaves left by the wind on the terrace tiles. I was walking, intrigued. No retreat on its part, to the contrary; it climbed the wall of ocher, this color scattered throughout the corridors of the seventeenth century former convent, once occupied by the Poor Clare sisters. The lizard followed its slow but sure progression, scaled the railing pilasters then basked on the wide guard-rail. It watched me constantly, stuck out its tongue, pointed towards the horizon or rather a segment of the shore. What a strange animal…Was it a typically Colombian species, capable of human friendship? Or a specimen straight out of the Amazonian forest, out of predators’ reach? Or yet a reincarnation of the Indian spirits from the neighbouring Sierra Nevada… The lizard’s insistent, oscillating dance fascinated me. I remembered what Ernesto, a slightly overweight Colombian settled in Miami, a hotel regular who made himself at home mornings on the patio, once the Poor Clare’s cloister, under the exotic trees: hibiscus, frangipani and Manila palms, had told me.
-This place has magical powers.
Ernesto had made a fortune in Miami renting motor boats to tourists and rich Cuban exiles. He had told me that he returned to Cartagena a few times a year to flee the American megalopolis which had become infernal and to rediscover the haunting grace of the languid city on the Caribbean Se coast. Seeing my skepticism, sipping his coffee from the Caldas province, he threw me a mischievous look:
-Go, then, and see the crypt, you will understand!
It consisted of a tiny cellar, only a few square meters under the trendy hotel bar where from time to time salsa groups performed. In his novel Of Love and Other Demons, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was a journalist in Cartagena long before receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, had described the story of a young girl bitten by a dog then buried in the crypt. Her blond hair had kept growing after her death to reach the modest and unworldly length of twenty-two meters. Ernesto was proud to have known Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had bought a house next to the Santa Clara hotel, opposite the sea, and had thus touched the hand of a man who had himself touched the young girl’s blond tresses.
Nowadays, the vibrations of the little orchestra playing just above penetrate the crypt; with a twenty-four-year-old singer as lean as a dried branch, possessed by his music, as vibrant as Compay Segundo of the Buena Vista Social Club. Not a hint of sacrilege . On the contrary, the musical notes seemed to cradle the religiousness of the narrow premises of aged stone. And above: the El Coro bar, far from being an alter to impiety, revealed the benefits of the little grotto of faith; as if the tank-topped dancers and the deceased nuns communed in the same trance. Yes, Ernesto was right, this underground den proved itself to be magical.
Was it the incarnation of this spot’s spirit that was reflected in the lizard’s look? It continued on its way, serenely, not the least bit afraid and always indicating the same direction; beyond the ramparts of the ancient Spanish city, towards the waves of warm waters, these sparkling mirrors gleaming blue-green that invariably send you back to Melville, Stevenson or Hemingway. When I turned my head in the direction of the old city, the bluish reptile showed me the opposite direction, that of the sea rocked by the Mexican current which had deposited over the years a strange white-sanded beach, isolated on this coastline of rocks and gravel. What a stubborn reptile… I was spellbound by the tiny creature’s intelligence and the magical beauty of the place.
There was no longer any doubt.
I woke Katarina and rushed down the stairs in order to answer the lizard’s compelling call. We
neared the gatehouse, the one the bluish reptile indicated. The bottle in the sea taunted us, it danced more than ever but we couldn’t get close to it.
-Look, that, too, is a good way to let go.
Katarina was pointing out a young Colombian couple enlaced and nestled in a hidden recess of the ramparts and who seemed to be fitted into the ancestral stones. As for us, blending into the decor, we, too, played the bashful lovers, snuggled up against each other under the rocks seeping saltpeter. Katarina kissed me heatedly. Set me smoldering seems a better term, but I held back my instinct. As a good geologist, I considered Katarina as a nugget that must be conserved and desired at length. She had guessed that the piece of glass shimmering before us intrigued me. I took Katarina by the hand and led her to the bank, beyond the walls of old cannons and the coastal promenade under the martial watch of the citadel.
-It’s better than in my TV series, she wisecracked.
-I will be an extra for you every day, if you want.
On the strip of land, by pure accident, I found Ernesto, who was wearing the same mischievous look as when he spoke to me of the crypt. He was accompanied by the woman who shared a good part of his life, an American from Miami. A former nightclub owner in Las Vegas then Miami, she had ended her nocturnal activities after having won at the casino, she explained to us. In Cartagena, she spent her time sunbathing at poolside where the beautiful Colombians paraded whereas Ernesto preferred visiting the city and strolling the side streets of wooden-balconied houses.