Stepping from the blaze of tropical sun into the dark, tawny interior of Ganzo’s palapa had damped her vision, so it came as a bit of a thrill to suddenly feel his hands plunge in under her damp hair and around her neck. But she reacted without hesitation. Her looks and gold hair might as well have been a target painted on her ass since she got out of grade school and she had learned to cope with it. And she was obviously strong and agile.
She jerked her head back and brought her fists up to strike just below the vault of his rib cage, driving both of them backwards a half step. She stepped on the edge of the door blanket and stomped down on it with her other foot, tearing it loose and letting the avid, damp light flood the shack.
He blinked once, but hadn’t moved or apparently felt her double punch. His face showed no expression at all. His hands were still extended out in front of him, but now she saw that they were connected by a leather strand. From which dangled a white carving. He brought his hands to his own throat, modeling the necklace, then extended it towards her again, nodding gently as if teaching a baby. Now she felt rotten.
She stepped inside and looked into his open, guileless face. What had she been thinking? This guy couldn’t hurt a fly if it was mugging him. And if he wanted a piece of her, he’d had plenty of opportunity. She reached out to touch the bruise on his left side. “I’m sorry, amigo. You just startled me, is all.”
But she got the feeling he’d barely felt the punch. This was one solid dude. He nodded again. No harm done. Hey, here’s a necklace.
She took the dangling charm in her hand and examined it. “Whoa! This is beautiful.”
It was a round piece of coral the size of a quarter, flat on one side and gracefully domed on the other. A baby coral, she thought. Only got this big before something broke it off and washed it in. The domed side was sanded smooth and bore a very subtle low-relief carving. Of a woman riding on the back of a dolphin. She was stunned by the workmanship, deeply moved by the image as she rubbed it with the pad of her thumb. Ganzo thrust out his hands again and she didn’t resist, let him hang it around her neck and clasp the ingenious shell catch in the down of her nape.
She looked down at it, then gave him the thousand watt California billboard smile that flashed her perfect white teeth and daybreak blue eyes. She leaned in to give him a soft kiss on the cheek and pat his pecs like you’d pet a friendly Rottweiler. He smelled like saltwrack and coconut. “Thank you. It’s wonderful. You made it, right?”
She’d seen his “workbench”, two fruit crates supporting a sea-smoothed chunk of plywood that was littered with coral and shell and rusting files and knives and naked hacksaw blades. But with the sudden infusion of light she could see his inventory hanging in the rustly fronds of his walls. Dozens of similar wonders hanging there, the sea treasure of a loving craftsman and gifted beachcomber. She moved over to touch them, turn them to the light.
The soft inner chaff of baroque coral chunks had been routed out to leave burnished, creamy webwork; finger-thick slabs of conch had been laboriously graven into sharks and mermaids and Mayan godheads with a faint gold backlight from the translucent shell; coconut shell disks were mounted with sea turtles and angelfish and modest nudes scraped out of scraps of bone or marlin vertebrae; hollow monkeyheart pods concealed keys or wave-sculptured green glass and even a tiny pendant watch. She was hanging with an artist, that much was obvious. She turned to him, eyes shining. This was just so bitchin’.
He pointed to a set of shelves made of curved weathered planks (from Cuban boats foundered on the reef, would be her guess) resting on battered, pre-used cinder blocks. They’d just been areas of dark brown shadow in the umber palapa light before, but now she saw the cream of Ganzo’s Olde Curiosity Shoppe.
It was a museum of seldom-seen, eye-grabbing jetsam. The bleached clavicle of an adult turtle, a hollow segment of the branch of tree coral, tubular sponges like panpipes made of Swiss cheese, cadmium yellow razor clams still joined and filtering the topaz light town on stingray spines and triggerfish spikes and barracuda teeth, crazy twisted worm tubes colored like caramel, cowries and trochas flanking delicate conch shells of all colors, a finned trolling weight cast of lead and now encrusted with tiny bonsai trees of red coral, purplish fans spangled with miniature snails like Christmas trees. a gold-hued conch almost two feet long with the tip of the spiral sawed off. When she looked at the conch and laid it back down in a constellation of periwinkles and barracuda jaws, Ganzo lifted it to his lips and blew it like a trumpet.
The deep, vibratory sound of the conch call got to her. She felt the hair on her neck ripple a little, a slight tightening of the skin on her upper arms. There was something deeply elemental about it: not mournful so much as solemn, contemplative. It droned on like a Tibetan temple horn, as she stared at him. He stuck a hand in the bell of the exponential pink curve and made movements that modulated and feathered the soft, ponderous lowing of the horn. The notes were still dying out when she noticed the four big white coral blocks.
There was something about them, the way they sat on display in a little niche formed by the upright prow of a broken dingy, caught the light in obliques that seemed to raise their convolutions as if embossed. They just seemed to have something to say. She approached them as if tugged along by some invisible, somewhat pushy, usher. As the conch note shivered somberly off to silence, she reached out to touch them.
She held the coral–a white brick as thick as a brick, wide as a lunchroom tray, slightly tapered to a mild keystone–like she’d hold an infant, staring at it. It was trying to tell her something, had some secret or clue. She felt like prodding around it to find the secret drawer.
Ganzo came up beside her and she turned to him with the intimacy and respect she’d learned in the last five minutes. “How did you make these?” So softly she could barely get it out.
He shook his head. “I didn’t do, I found. Big storm.”
She traced the contours of the design on the coral, the twisting web of solid stone she was definitely seeing as a design. “What are they?”
He moved over and straddled a plastic milk crate padded with slubby jerga cloth. Picking up a labyrinthine piece of coral, he used a sixteen penny nail to point out the flaky star inside the tube of hard material. The delicate web of crumbly calcium that had been the polyp’s fragile furniture inside its sturdy marble walls. She winced as he ground the nail into it, crunching away at the interior structure. In less than a minute he had reamed out the soft stuff, leaving a tube that ran all the way through the piece. He inserted a soft pencil wrapped in emery cloth and polished the inside to the same dull gloss as his necklaces. Suddenly she saw coral as stack of tenements, the rooms littered with flimsy trash that could be cleaned out to create a gallery of ocean sheen. And no longer as complex rocks, but as collections of tubes.
He held the piece up in front of her, watching her face until she nodded. Then he took the big chunk of coral that she was still cradling and set it on the plywood and traced his finger along the raised pattern of white stone. She nodded again and he grabbed a blue school notebook from the table, whipped the sandpaper off the pencil and sketched with a sure, fine hand that once again shocked her with his hidden depths.
He held up the design and she studied it. Something familiar about it, but… Hell, her face was familiar, “but”…
He rummaged around in his “shelves”, mostly gallon plastic paint buckets stacked in rows at the wall end of his “bench”, and drew out a battered metal ashtray. Cheap market souvenir for gringos, the squatting guy with his laden tumpline, surrounded by glyphs. The Mayan calendar, as seen all over the tacky little stalls off main streets in tourist dives like Playa Carmen and Isla and Tulum.
He dumped out a handfull of brass findings and pointed to one of the glyphs, then back to his sketch. And it all fell in. She felt her breath catch in wild surmise. He said “Akbal,” then pointed to the sketch and repeated, “Akbal.”
“Oh, holy, shit,” she muttered. “That’s just impossible.”
He nodded gravely and patted the coral affectionately. “Coralcatura.”
She looked at him, stunned and confused.
He reached to the “shelves” again, pulled out a musty old “Condorito” comic book, and pointed at the peppy little cartoon condor on the cover, flipped the pages. He said, “Caricaturas.”
Then pointed to the white blocks in his alcove and again said, Coralcaturas