Horse Latitudes: New Excerpt
Horse Latitudes is a tropical gothic—part thriller, part nightmarish journey into the corruption at the heart of US intervention in Central America.
“When your life vanishes, how do you do anything but follow it?”
Haunted by guilt and reeling from his shattered marriage, New York photographer Ethan flees south to a Central American country on the brink of revolution. Ethan doesn’t know if he’s seeking redemption or punishment, but—one bad choice after another—he finds himself indebted to Yolanda, who gives him a chance, if anything she’s saying is true, to find both.
Yolanda’s sister is deep in the country’s interior, waiting for a man named Soto—a slave trafficker posing as a migrant guide. The journey to find her plunges Ethan into a feverish world of demented expatriates, intelligence officers, mystics and lunatics, where loyalties are uncertain and ghosts unshakable.
Excerpt from Horse Latitudes
Ethan caught the fever in Mexico, rode it out for a few days at Yolanda’s house, and let it break. But it flared again when he slept, woke him in his seat on the bus out of Nuevo Laredo and stayed with him. He felt it during the border crossing into Guatemala and he felt it now in the bar near the station. It came in waves, heat washing into sudden cold, the usual aches and pains, the short, bad dreams and free-fall dread.
He ordered a beer at the bar and took a table by the window. In this makeshift border outpost, most buildings were huts of palmwood and woven grass, or farther up the road, in the mountains, the way the bus had come, cardboard and plastic shacks with scrap-metal roofs. So the bar, with its concrete foundation and whitewashed stucco, seemed incongruous and blocky. A transplant from the cities. The one permanent thing built, he thought, for people like him, waiting for buses across the border. This was the fever throwing up errant symmetries. There were no people like him. The bus station consisted of a bench, a sign, a few street hawkers. These days no one crossed into Copal.
In the back, under a mosquito lamp, a drunk American was singing karaoke. He looked about fifty, with a close-cropped military haircut and wide, unblinking eyes. Probably a former Marine stationed down here in the eighties who transferred to the mercenary racket or just stayed on after his tour was up. Not that uncommon. Ethan knew the type from his previous trips to Copal. A shabby gringo pervert fleeing to Spanish-speaking countries without speaking a word of Spanish.
A few Indians and two off-duty border guards sat at the tables between them. They kept their backs to the American and stared out through the door and didn’t speak. For a moment after the song ended the sounds of night swept into the bar: tree frogs and an owl screech, a distant radio, everything thickening into a warm tropical hush.
Ethan pressed his beer to his face. If his luck held, the Marine wouldn’t come talk to him. He’d make it through the night here and catch the first bus in the morning. Maybe he’d find the girl before the others did. He couldn’t imagine his luck stretching any further than that.
“Hey, partner,” said the Marine, sitting opposite him suddenly. “You look like a friend of mine.”
“I’m friendly,” Ethan said. “But that’s not quite the same thing.”
The Marine ran his hand back and forth over his scalp with increasing urgency. He shook his head from side to side as he did it.
“I don’t know about that attitude, brother. Down here, that is not a way to be.”
“I’m just passing through,” Ethan said.
“That’s how it is. No one stays. It can get lonely if you’re a civilized man.”
“Are you?” Ethan asked.
“Let me tell you this,” the Marine said. “I am the fucking foundation of the civilized world. Do you know why? I am a man in his natural habitat and I live accordingly.”
His weepy, twitching eyes appeared bright and gelatinous. Like something you’d find at the bottom of the sea. Ethan raised and drank from his beer. He knew this kind of lucidity trembled on the other side of fever. The mind spiraling down into weird particulars.
Again he said, “I’m just passing through.”
“Well this is as good a crossroads as any. Where you headed?”
“Shit,” the Marine said. “Best wait until morning. And even then, vaya con Dios, brother.”
About this the Marine was right: in every way the situation surpassed Ethan’s capabilities, and he cherished it for that—a simple, terrifying truth against which the past, his whole life till now, lost dimension, warped away like an image reflected in a passing car window.
“Things are not good in Copal,” the Marine said. “Then again, things are not top-notch here. Look at these losers—” He nodded at the guards who stood, slung their rifles over their shoulders, and headed away into the night. “—they’re worthless. Children have been disappearing from the villages. Does anyone do anything? Does anyone investigate? Fuck no. They blame it on the Duende. That’s right, you can’t take a piss without showing some imbecile your papers, but children start going missing and they point their fingers at a freaking goblin.”
He paused and shrugged and began to scratch his head again.
“My thoughts? My personal opinion? It’s a load off. Who here can afford children? But people take it hard. My girl is upset. Her twenty-third cousin or some shit is missing.”
Like all the gringo expats Ethan had ever met, the Marine wanted to wax poetic about the poor sixteen-year-old he was screwing.
“She cries all the time now, but she’s a sweetheart. You have to understand that women down here respect something basic in you. They allow your manhood. They remain gracious to your nature.”
Outside, a distant noise echoed down out of the mountains or shanties. Ethan closed his eyes and rested his head against the window, hoping that the glass, bordered as it was with the night, would be cool. An instinct from his previous life in the north. Of course the glass was warm.
Another flurry of noise, louder now, and closer, in the hills behind the bar. The shrill yapping of coyotes on the hunt. The Indians stood and crossed themselves.
“It’s just coyotes,” Ethan said.
The Marine looked bored or trashed, the bottom falling out on his drunk. He waved and knocked over Ethan’s empty bottle. “Coyotes stick to the uplands. The scrub. They don’t have them down here.”
Ethan knew coyotes from his grandfather’s farm in New Hampshire. They broke into the rabbit hutches the night he found his mother. No one went out to stop them.
“I’m listening to coyotes right now,” he said.
The yapping came closer, hysterical, modulating, high-pitched as parrots. They were on the move and closing in and the Indians pressed themselves up against the back wall and began to pray. Ethan heard some other commotion in the street, a screaming woman, and then a new sound over the rest—the clear, high wail of a child.
The Indians crossed themselves again and sat. Ethan listened harder. The shrieking coyotes, the child, a crying woman and praying Indians, and the moment dropped into sudden focus: the child was screaming in pain. She was not just frightened audience to the coyote hunt; she was there with them. She was the prey.
He was at the door, standing. The Indians, rocking silently, did nothing to stop him when he reached down and grabbed one of their machetes. In every way the noise in the street was worse.
“Isn’t anyone going to do anything?”
The Marine looked up from the table like Ethan hadn’t heard him properly, like, as usual, he couldn’t quite make himself understood. “I told you coyotes don’t live this far south,” he mumbled. “Maybe it’s a flock of owls. It doesn’t fucking matter. The town’s on lockdown. They think it’s the goddamn Duende.”
When Ethan found them, three small and mangy coyotes, about fifty yards up the hill in a burnt-out clearing, they stopped and turned and faced him. The child on the
ground was quieter, but still moaning and still moving. Beyond the clearing, a bamboo grove cluttered back into the mountain forest. If that’s where the coyotes came from there could be more in there. Across the road, a few scrap huts stood crookedly on the sloping plane, but they stayed quiet and lightless and no one came out to help.
Ethan began to shout and wave and the coyotes stopped their attack and watched him, but did not move. He jumped, he shouted, and one of the coyotes jolted into motion and bit the girl on the ground. Then another one did and as the third one loped in toward her, Ethan started to run at them—swinging the machete, bellowing—and they bolted. They scrambled off, not like dogs, but faster, jerking away with the skittering motion of insects until they reached the bamboo canebreak where again they stopped and turned and stood waiting. He only had a few moments. For now, the coyotes were disturbed, but they wouldn’t be for long.
The girl on the ground looked about seven or eight, big prey for such trashy coyotes, and she must have fought for a while—that was what he heard in the bar—but now she lay curled with her legs tucked against her chest, panting her way into shock. Standing in a wide flank at the canebreak, the coyotes watched curiously as Ethan dropped the machete and lifted the girl into his arms. He began to walk with her and the coyotes didn’t follow. He asked her name and she wouldn’t tell him, but he kept asking her. She was bleeding from her hands and arms, one of her legs, and a fleshy, tangled mess where her right ear was shredded. Slowly, people began to emerge from the huts. Somewhere behind him a woman cried out and he stood there in the street with the girl and waited.
Afterward, he hurried back to the bar and his bags which were, surprisingly, still there. The bartender was missing, probably off with the rest of the town looking after the girl, and the Marine was the only one inside. He raised his head from the table.
“Not an evil spirit after all?” he said. “You can see how the Spanish conquered this place with a fag on a horse.”
Ethan picked up his bag and went out into the night. At the bus stop he changed his shirt and waited. Down the road, a red security light wavered from the Guatemalan border shack where maybe the guards were sleeping or drinking or playing cards. Beyond the frontier post, the road turned into the jungle, toward the Copal station. It was almost Madrugada, the blue hour before dawn. In his abandoned life, Ethan was a photographer, and the photographer in him should be drawn to this light, but here it made everything appear out of proportion, enlarged: the flowers and crescent leaves, the bare hills, the insects. Copal was the same way. It was a land out of another century or world, a dying, twilit country where you knew the night would be bad.
On his stunned walk back into town, he had seen a lake pooling out on the plateau behind the shanties. Under the slivered moonlight it hung flat and motionless and Ethan thought about what he would have to do in the coming days. Once when he went snorkeling off the north coast of Honduras he had watched pearl divers in boats out beyond the reef line grab weights and jump overboard. It was like that. Getting down there would be easy. You let yourself sink. Anyone could do it. But getting back without consequences, where the stakes rose with every moment, would be difficult.
The woman appeared out of the dark and stood before him. She was short and the gauzy border light dredged half her face from shadow. In one hand she held a woven sack, in the other a machete.
“I have something to show you,” she said to him in English.
She held out the sack and he didn’t know what else to do but take it.
“This is something you need. It is a relic. Taken from a conquistador. It is precious and magical and very old.”
Ethan untied the sack and let it drop. He held the skeletal hand in his own hands. A man’s hand probably, white bone bleached and broken at the wrist into jagged shards—a hand certainly severed.
“Please take it,” she said and stepped closer to him, fully into the light. Hours ago, when his bus let out, she had been there, halving coconuts with clean, sure strikes of a machete and selling them to people to drink from as they got off the bus. He could imagine her severing this hand with the same skill.
“This is something you need.” She touched his leg and her own hands were small and knobby, like strange windfall fruits. “This is something you need and it will not cost you much.”
The fever seemed to sweep in from someplace outside of him, another bad feeling on the overly fragrant air. It blew through him, burned fast and then was gone, like a flare of marsh gas, and it emptied him out. He was shivering in the aftermath. Trembling as Samantha trembled, shuddering down through her medication into sleep. The woman reached out and placed her hand over his, so that together they both held the severed hand where a sliver of dried skin still stuck to the base of the thumb. Bones not long removed from their flesh.
“Please,” she was saying, “it will not cost you much and is something you need. You are sick.”
“I am sick,” Ethan said.
“You are sick and this is a remedy.”
He pulled away and left her holding the skeletal hand. Way up in the hills and in the forest across the street, birds whose cries he did not know began to announce what would have to pass for a new day. She said it again—“It is a remedy for those who are broken”—and it felt like the wrong way to start a journey, a curse or a bad omen, a reckoning, rigid and fair and as inalterable as the past.
On the last morning in New York before it happened, Ethan stood at the window and watched the sun breaking in slantwise shards off passing traffic. Down in the street, fifteen floors below, the noodle vendor assembled his cart. Behind Ethan, across the apartment, in the bathroom, the shower turned off, and he knew from when Samantha used to leave the door open that now she was pulling back the curtain, reaching for her towel, covering her face with it and not putting on the fan, never letting the fogged mirror uncloud before her. He thought to himself: if I crossed the apartment, if I opened the door.
Outside a car horn erupted.
Sometimes when he woke in the night he did not know her, her face ruptured out of dream, withered and shrunken, a face carved from tree bark, and later he will say to himself, this is how it happened. He will look for causes and impulses, but will find only a sequence, an unfurling of events.
A pair of pigeons flushed from the sill.
He turned from the window and went to the kitchenette. He cut up bananas and poured coffee.
To the closed door, he said, “It’s going to snow. Don’t forget your boots.”
She sat across from him at the table with her lipstick already on and her contacts in and the untouched coffee going cold in her mug, and he did not know how to answer when she looked up and wiped some water from her throat and said, “Ethan, what are you thinking?”
Later, as she left, as she stood and turned and slammed the door behind her, he raised his camera from the table as if snapping a picture could halt the moment, unbuckle it from its consequences, but she was gone already and the digital display just showed the door about to close, a shadow outside it holding a woman’s shape, leaving or coming in.
That night he met Mallory at a bar when Samantha did not come home and he could not simply sit and wait for some confirmation of his building certainty that whatever life he’d imagined when he married her was on the threshold of vanishing. The Azul was a two-story throwback Cuban lounge with high vaulted ceilings, slow-turning fans, and a forty-foot mahogany and marble bar smuggled into New York piece by piece from the Havana Nacional Hotel. They sat beside a picture window on the second floor indoor balcony. Below them, rows of candles guttered on the empty bar and flickered in wide, lengthening refractions against the top-shelf liquors. In the far corner, a spotlight cast a purple circle on the bare stage.
“I can’t believe you called me,” Mallory said. “Don’t you have any other friends?”
She wasn’t looking at him, but out through the window at the moving storm.
“I guess I felt some need of your company,” Ethan said. “Your Midwestern optimism.”
She didn’t turn away from the window and he tried to stare at her, at the candle-glow on her round cheekbones, the gold flicker around her averted eyes. He tried to will her into meeting his gaze and she would not. Finally, he looked out, as she did, at the far horizon where thunderheads scudded in from the south like the lid of a tomb sliding shut. After the incident at the kitchen table Samantha left without her boots, and now the lights of the city pulsed and glowed on the clouds like heat lightning burnishing the edges of a building storm. It was a thing out of season, a typhoon dusk, a weird sky lit out of tropical latitudes of hurricane light.
“I’ve got no optimism these days,” she said. “I’m all plague and woe. I’m rewriting my dissertation.”
“I thought you were working on Chaucer? The Book of the Duchess? I thought you were writing about the white city on the hill?”
“It’s taken a turn,” Mallory said.
Still, she did not look away from the window. Outside, pigeons broke from the street and rose in cooing, hectic swirlings. They wheeled in the impossible light and Ethan felt the urge to raise his camera to the sky, to reach and lift it from where it hung around his neck, but of course it was not there.
“I think my wife is going to leave me,” he said.
He saw Mallory blink once, very hard.
“Well, golly. You must feel pretty bad,” she said.
Ethan realized that his glass was empty. He lifted it anyway.
“I feel like whatever I feel now is going to get worse.”
She reached up with her right hand and touched one of her earrings. They were crystal baubles, Viking replicas, and were, as far as he knew, the only earrings she owned. They sold them uptown, at the Cloisters, the Medieval art museum where she worked and where she met Ethan when he came there to do a brochure shoot.
“You never told me her name,” Mallory said. “Not once. And it’s too bad because I like names.”
“Samantha,” he said, and tipped the ice from his glass into his mouth. It made a sound like teeth cracking as he bit it. Samantha. He tried to imagine her now. Samantha slinking through the city with her head down and her shoulders rounded, her arms crossed in front of her body, hugging her chest like a little girl walking home in the rain; or Samantha slouching over a bar, tossing her hair out of her face as she looked up toward the ceiling at the frail benediction of the lights there and smiled for a moment for nobody at all; Samantha stepping out of a cab and into some man’s apartment building, winking at the doorman and disappearing behind a closing door of smoked glass. Samantha, after a year of marriage, a cipher still; Samantha whom he knew he could still love, but wouldn’t; Samantha, now, certainly, inevitably, anything but alone.
The year’s jealousy flared in his chest like a lit match. He wanted another drink but there was no server and he was sure that if he went downstairs to the bar Mallory would be gone by the time he came back. The curtain behind the stage slid open and a man in a tuxedo stepped into the spotlight. He was short, a dwarf, and perhaps because Ethan and Mallory were the only ones in the bar he angled his body out of the direct light and looked up toward their table. Under the slanting spot-glow, his black mustache seemed to droop away from his lip like paint smeared into an elongated frown. He began to sing.
“I tried to take her picture today,” Ethan said. “As she left the apartment. I don’t know why I did that.”
Mallory turned, finally, from the window. He looked for disdain or anger in her eyes, but they simply seemed tired, unable to focus.
“You’re a photographer, Ethan. Where’s the fucking mystery?”
“It’s just not something I do,” he said.
And it wasn’t. It was one of the myriad little weirdnesses in their relationship that suggested the larger dysfunction. He was a photographer and he photographed her so rarely—so rarely, anyway, did she allow candid shots. He could probably count them on one hand. There had been a few times during their courtship before he knew better, and once in Key West when he caught her by surprise. Early on, she let him bring his camera to bed as a sort of game, but he realized later that those moments were posed for him: Samantha from behind with her hand braced against the headboard and the flash shadowing the muscles in her arm, throwing the sweat between her arched shoulders into a rainbow of broken glass, or Samantha kneeling between his legs with her hair tied back and her eyes open and wide and staring straight up at the camera. A moment manufactured as carefully as the advertisements she developed. Nothing beyond her control.
“Do you think the monks drew grotesques and monsters into the margins of their Bibles to represent the terrors of the fallen world?” Mallory asked. “Or were they just mean and celibate and bored?”
Her eyes would not focus properly. There was something familiar about the dwarf’s song, but the words were in Spanish and Ethan did not know any Spanish songs. The dwarf still faced their table, crooning up at them.
“Let me buy you another drink,” Ethan said. “Tell me about the dissertation.”
“Not likely. No one wants to talk about their dissertation. Not to you.”
The dwarf’s tone had changed. He was snarling the words, singing as if in a rage, and Ethan recognized the song now. It was “As Time Goes By” sung in Spanish. There was no piano. The dwarf sang and sang and stared up at them. The light leant his grimacing aspect the stilted, static look of a weeping clown mask. Ethan turned away. Outside, it had begun to rain in icy sheets, but still the red light hung over the city.
“What’s with this light?” he said.
Mallory made a dismissive gesture in the air with her hands. She seemed barely able to lift them.
“The pigs are lurking about the crib,” she said.
“Are you on drugs? Or is that Chaucer?”
“Ethan, are you relieved that your wife is leaving you?”
The song had not ended. Hail tapped at the window now. The dwarf barked the Spanish refrain over and over and the bartender made no move to stop him. Clearly, the singer was crying.
“It’s a simple question, Ethan. It’s not some trick. Are you relieved?”
The dwarf’s expression was like something he woke to in the middle of the night, Samantha’s face withered into dream. “Yes,” Ethan said.
His cell phone began to ring and at first he didn’t recognize the sound. It rang and rang on the table before them though he had no memory of putting it there and Mallory shook her head and looked out the window at the lit storm. She stood.
“I think you’re in trouble, boy,” she said. “I think you’re about out of luck.”
By the time Ethan got home the police were in the lobby. He saw them when he entered: two of them, in uniform, sitting on the green leather couches and talking to the doorman. One of them said something and the doorman laughed and shrugged and made a motion as if to spit on the floor. There was something sinister in the gesture, definitively cruel, and Ethan didn’t like the way the police laughed along with him. He saw their heads turn as he entered, saw the doorman’s smile harden into a toothy rictus; he saw the doorman nod toward him. He reached the open elevator, stepped inside, pressed the button and waited, facing outward, for the doors to close. The police, of course, were standing now, coming toward him, shoulder to shoulder with their wet galoshes squeaking in synchronized parody on the marble floor. They spoke his name, he looked away, and the doors slid silently closed. The elevator began to rise.
Copyright © 2019 Morris Collins.