Todd Allen Pitts
The Serpent Passage
MAP OF THE
William bolted from his chair, knocking over his soda as he rushed to the bamboo railing, hoping she would be right there, just out of sight near the water’s edge. “Where the hell did she go?” he muttered, his eyes wide with disbelief, darting from left to right, scanning the entire lake and adjoining restaurant. A hot middle-aged woman with stringy-blonde hair, wearing a bright yellow shirt, shouldn’t be too hard to spot, he thought.
His activities drew the attention of a chubby waiter with a thin mustache, who noticed the mess he had just made. “Otra cola, friend?” he asked in his broken English, shuffling toward the thatched canopy table near the lake.
William waved the waiter his way in an erratic manner, as if he was swatting at a bee. “Hey, you know that lady I was just talking to?”
“Lady? Oh sure, es Betty,” he said quite matter-offactly, while wiping the table with his rag.
“Did you see her leave?”
The waiter rolled his eyes, not quite understanding. “Swim here casi every day, esta Betty.”
“Did you see her get out?” he asked, articulating his words as clearly as he could. He shot his attention over to the railing again, staring at the spot where he had last seen her, dog-paddling in the cool waters of the cenote.
“She come-she go,” the waiter said. “Sometime swim for hours-strong as a cocodrilo, esta Betty… pero never buying nothing. Nothing!”
“But she was right there, maybe ten feet from the shore,” he said, pointing at the lake. “I looked away for only a couple seconds-to put some salsa on a chip-and when I looked back… she was gone. I mean nobody can swim that fast!”
With a glazed expression the waiter processed William’s quick dialogue, seeming to grasp for the few words he could pick out. He noticed the plate of soggy chips, ruined by his spilled drink. “Ah, entonces… mas nachos?” the waiter asked.
“Look dude, I think… Betty… may have drowned out there! That’s what I’m trying to say. Do you understand me?” he asked, throwing his hands up. But the waiter’s blank expression confirmed that he wasn’t getting it, and so he tried in his second language. “Creo que Betty puede haber ahogado. Entiende usted?”
The waiter’s face lit up, looking surprised to hear William-a tall American teenager-speaking such fluent Spanish. “Ah, entiendo. Pero, don’t you worry, my friend. She here somewhere… or con su esposo. Relax… enjoy la musica. I get you mas nachos,” he said with a broad grin, chuckling as he toddled off.
William slumped into his chair with a scowl on his face, annoyed to not be taken seriously. He shrugged and let out a heavy sigh, deciding to assume that Betty had finished her swim, slipped out unnoticed somehow, and was long gone. He brushed it off and tried to forget about her. Besides, he should be thinking about his girlfriend, he scolded himself, not some random lady.
He pulled his BlackBerry from his pocket and glared at it, wondering why his girlfriend hadn’t returned his recent text messages. So he decided to send her a video instead. With his arm extended, he aimed the back of his BlackBerry his way and began recording. “Hey Jen,” he said with a forced smile. “I’m just hanging out here at this lake… the Cenote Azul. I wish you could be here with me, but since you can’t, I thought I’d send the lake to you. Here, have a look.” His video continued with a pan across the cenote, settling on some Mexican children swimming near the shore. He watched through the tiny screen of his phone as they jumped off the rocky ledges into the water with big splashes, filling the air with laughter. Near the kids, William noticed an old American fellow scanning the lake; his squinting eyes accentuated the wrinkles on his face. He seemed to be shouting for someone, but between the noise from the children and trumpets from the Mariachi band by the bar, William couldn’t hear his words. He rolled his thumb along the trackball to zoom in on the man’s face, trying to read his lips.
The BlackBerry dropped with a clank to the table as William sprang from his chair. He charged toward the old man, startling him by his sudden approach. “Were you calling for Betty?” William asked.
“Yes…” the man said, cocking his head like he was trying to remember if he knew William from somewhere. “I’m looking for my wife. Have you…”
“Oh crap!” William blurted. Without hesitation, he grabbed a mask that a kid had left on the rocks, pulled it over his face, and kicked off his sandals. With two large strides he plunged in with a giant splash. As he swam a few strokes to the spot where he had last seen Betty, he heard the old man continuing to call out for her, in a more worried tone than before. While taking a deep breath, William caught sight of a small crowd forming near the shore, drawn to the commotion. He plunged head first into the cenote and kicked his way down.
Nearly a minute later, William resurfaced, gasped for air, and made his way to the shore. He staggered from the water and threw the mask to the ground. “My God,” he said, trying to catch his breath, “she’s down there… I can see her yellow shirt!”
The waiter rushed over with a fake smile. “No pasa nada… no pasa nada,” he said, trying to calm the crowd. He snapped his fingers several times, signaling the Mariachis to pick up their tempo. With the speed of a track change on a CD, they shifted gears and began singing an upbeat tune. The patrons returned to their seats, enjoying the ambiance and their private conversations. Those who remained were gawking at William, obviously wondering what he was so upset about.
“But she’s too deep!” William said. He dropped to his hands and knees, coughing, “Sixty-maybe seventy feet. I couldn’t reach her.”
Betty’s husband shot a glaring look at the waiter beside him. “Well, call for help God damn it!” He slapped the waiter hard on the back, drawing even more onlookers.
The waiter sprang to attention. “Yes-yes-I try… pero, it take time for help to come,” he said, and ran off to the back of the restaurant.
The Mariachi music fizzled out, for the band had also become distracted by the scene, and they joined the crowd with their instruments still in hand.
With his strength returning, William jumped to his feet-his eyes wide with revelation. He glanced at his watch. “There’s still time,” he said to Betty’s husband. William gave him a reassuring nod and ran off.
Sprinting up the stairway to the restaurant’s exit, William wondered how long she had been under. Five minutes? Perhaps six? Could she still be revived? His father had told him of cases like that-of people being brought back long after drowning.
As he reached the top of the stairway, William passed by a very old Mayan man with milky-white eyes, tapping his cane along the steps, making his way down to the cenote. The blind man paused, the way a deer does when it hears a hunter approaching, and he followed William with his ears as he ran by.
William had his keys in hand when he arrived at his car. He popped open the trunk and yanked out his scuba tank; it was still attached to the buoyancy vest. He flung another dive bag over his shoulder, grabbed a mess of tubes, and hustled back to the restaurant, leaving the keys still dangling from the opened trunk. Fumbling with his equipment as he went, he connected the first stage of the regulator to the tank valve and snapped the low pressure inflator hose onto the vest. He twisted the tank valve open; the pressurized air made a hissing noise as it flooded the tubes. At the top of the steps he dropped the dive bag from his shoulder, slipped the vest and tank over his back in a sweeping motion, picked up the bag again, and kept going. A quick check of his watch revealed that another minute had passed.