The sun was sinking rapidly as I crossed the lawn, headed for the dock. Settled into the weathered bench at the pierhead, facing west, front row center at this daily celestial spectacle, I called up video on my phone. Holding it steady, I panned slowly clockwise, starting at the boardwalk, with Rushland in the background, and progressing through darkening woods towards complex many-colored clouds accumulating on the horizon where the sun had just set. I posted the video on Tango Folly.com, typed “Hi, Maria… just keeping in touch”, attached Edvard Munch’s “Scream”, and clicked Send. Tantalizing moments passed. A chirp alerted me to incoming text. “In tango class; wish you were here… Maria.”
I watched the tide infiltrating the mudflats before me. I figured within an hour I’d be able to navigate my kayak down Murray Creek to the Stono River, cross over with rapid determined strokes, and finally float into the little creek that petered out at the bottom of Maria’s garden. She’d be back from class by then, nursing chilled vinho verde on her rooftop and listening to Carlos di Sarli. However, by the time I translated thought into action, gliding towards the river as a blood red moon rose behind me, a light mist had settled over the sea marsh. Poor visibility and the rising tide conspired to mislead me. Somehow I missed the turn into Maria’s creek, and was back-paddling along a palisade of marsh grass when I felt a light bump near the stern and then a more solid impediment that stopped me dead in the water.
I peered over the side, and saw an ice-chest caught between the kayak and the sea grass. The lid was dangling from a single hinge. Reaching into the chest, I pulled out a black bottle of gold-labeled champagne. More bottles were in there, wedged in place by baggies swollen with white powder. Fighting down a shrill adrenaline scream, I scanned the river and marsh around me. The river mist had dissipated. I saw no sinister blacked-out motor-yacht, only a placid expanse of salt grass, the river’s shifting moonlit surface, and the regular red blinks of a distant microwave tower. I considered my options, which boiled down to salvaging the chest, or leaving it behind, bobbing in my wake. Opportunity overruled caution. I stashed the bottles and baggies in the kayak’s bow, found my way into Maria’s creek, and moored a few minutes later at her dock to the strains of Osvaldo Fresedo’s “El Once” drifting down from her rooftop.
“El Once” reminded me of the last, eleventh celebration of the annual Gran Baile del Internado in Buenos Aires in 1924, where an innocent prank had provoked the gunning down of a medical student named Ernesto O’Farrell. Civic outrage over the killing was fueled by its association with scandalous Tango. And here was I, seeking solace in Tango, in possession of apparent contraband, possibly risking death if tracked down by whoever was missing an ice-chest. More thoughtful now, safely ensconced in Maria’s hidden creek, my heartbeat back to normal, I reconsidered my options. Best was to report at once my discovery to 911, but I was wary of involving Maria. Not to mention explaining a questionable nocturnal kayak crossing of a river where just recently two men had drowned in a freak thunderstorm while fishing on an ebb-tide for spot-tail bass. Second-best was simply to return the champagne and baggies to the ice-chest, and to get on with my life, questionable though it might be.
As I loosened the kayak’s line and reached for the paddle, the final bars of “El Once” played out. The ensuing silence was broken by the low rumble of an outboard motor and I saw the red and green bow light of a small boat nosing its way up the creek. I muted my phone and held my breath. Maria had doused the candles ranged around her rooftop, and her silhouette leaning on the parapet was etched against racing clouds. And now came the first somber chords of “First Kill”, from the movie “Assassination Tango”. Instantly, the motor and the running light shut down. I crept incognito beneath the dock. I marveled at Maria’s sixth sense that had intuitively caught and sound-tracked the drama being enacted at the bottom of her garden. All I could see were dark shadows fringed in moonlight filtering down through the water oaks and conifers that lined the creek. An owl called from distant woods, bull-frogs croaked occasionally from the marsh, and fireflies flashed here and there.
The motor-boat bumped gently into my kayak, and a flash-light swept briefly over it and the deserted dock. Minutes ticked off as someone stepped silently ashore, paused, and then set off at a crouch towards the house. I messaged Maria, “Lock the doors, don’t open them to anyone…” Matters were quickly getting out of hand. I could return my stash to the ice-chest, if I could find it, but first I’d have to disable the motor-boat to avoid pursuit. That would mean leaving Maria to deal with whoever was prowling around her home. Going to her rescue, a white knight on a charger, was laudable but useless, given that I was unarmed and that my martial triumphs happened only on chess-boards, and then infrequently. More and more, a call to 911 was mandatory. While dialling, rehearsing my story, I heard a cacophony of dog barks, a stifled scream, and someone stumbling in a frenzy back to the dock. I ducked out of sight. The moon re-emerged from a bank of clouds. “First Kill” seguéd easily into “El Cielo en Tus Ojos”.
Curses and a snarling hound interrupted Roberto Rufino’s anguished cry that he was disoriented, that his faith was broken, and that he saw the sky in the eyes of his beloved. I lay low, even as a 911 dispatcher asked what service I required, and what was the address? I whispered, “Police,” blanked on Maria’s address, added “Never mind”, and switched off. Next thing I knew, the outboard fired up, and the motorboat backed off from my kayak with grinding concussions, wheeled around, and sped off towards the river. The hound paced the dock, snuffling in frustration. It paused to sniff at a seam in the boards just above my cowering head, poured forth a paroxysm of barks, and then slouched off towards the house. My phone buzzed. “Max? Is that you down there?” A flashlight danced along the path from Maria’s house. Di Sarli’s orchestration embroidered Rufino’s refrain, “The sky in your eyes gives me courage, and increases my crazy desire to live.”
Maria emerged from the shadows. She paused at the step onto the dock, one pale hand at her breast, and the other fingering the hem of her tango skirt. Botticelli’s Venus flashed before my eyes. Under the passionate spell of her crystalline soul, my hell in Eden was transformed. But all that had to wait. I embraced her silently, and nuzzled the pearled precinct of her ear. “I’ll be back,” I murmured, “I’ll explain later.” I untied the kayak, settled in, and paddled swiftly towards the river and the lost ice-chest. I soon left the shadowy confines of the creek, and found myself in open water. The moon was higher now in a clear star-studded sky. The fireflies had disappeared, and the bullfrogs’ choruses had died down.
As I made for the protective cover of sea-grass, hoping to blend into invisibility, I felt water sloshing around my flip-flops, and loose bottles of champagne and fat baggies of white powder shifting around in the bow. And then I noticed that the kayak was lower in the water than usual, and that paddling was now more strenuous. No doubt about it: I was sinking. The churning propeller of the motorboat must have torn a hole in the kayak. Waves began to slop over the gunwhale when I was still a hundred yards from the palisade of rushes where I’d found the ice-chest. Within seconds I was chest-deep in cold water, and the kayak was slipping out from under me, headed for the bottom. My struggle to get free was greeted by the raucous scream of a night-hawk, swooping low over the moonlit river.
Dragged down, kicking frantically free of the kayak, I drowned a scream by gulping a mouthful of water and swam for the surface, my eyes reaching for the distant starry sky. I was disoriented, my faith broken. In the awful loneliness of my ordeal, Maria was like a sun illuminating my eternal darkness and I lived again, her crystal soul sweetening my bitter cup. I was channeling the lyrics of the tango “El Cielo en Tus Ojos”, of course, but that simple recitation brought me back up, spluttering, treading water, and moments later found me swimming for the shelter of the marsh, where I found soft purchase in pluff mud, lay down shivering and breathless swaddled in sea grass, and wondered what next.
My kayak and the incriminating salvaged contraband were gone. All I had to do was get home, reassure Maria, and forget the whole story. I must have dropped off for a while, my thoughts revolving inexorably, as dreams tend to do, around swimming four hundred yards in twelve minutes to qualify as a volunteer scuba diver in the South Carolina Aquarium. I woke, chilled, thinking that the Stono River was no wider, that the current was slack at high tide, and that twelve minutes hence I could be back home. By the time I translated thought into action, Roberto Rufino’s tango vals assertion that the sky in his lover’s eyes gave him courage and chased away his suffering was beginning to sound hollow. An eternity later, I dragged myself, arms aching, onto my dock.
As I crossed the lawn towards my house, I noted that Sootie, the black bronze nude of Catalonian provenance reclining by the marshfront water-oaks, was smiling as always, non-committally. My phone, marinated in the brackish reality of low country waterways, and normally a dependable connection to all things relevant or otherwise, was dead. Maria would have to wait. I poured myself a gin and tonic and tuned into Budapest Radio’s classical tango stream. With timeliness worthy of Carl Jung’s synchronicity, “El Cielo en Tus Ojos” soothed the scream still echoing in my ears. Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.