THE BEGINNING OF HIS EXCELLENT & EVENTFUL CAREER (an excerpt)
From the moment I shot Don Agustín I was pursued. Crude sketches of my face dotted the marketplace of every district and so I was forced to ride into the sierra and to make it my home. It is a place free from the hand of man or the track of his animals. Water is scarce and the vegetation is scrub and thorns. Rising as it does from the desert in the north, the mountains open southward into ridges spreading like broken hands.
But in truth the sierra resembles nothing. If you fear it it will prove fearful, and if you hate it so then hateful and if you take it as safety and as succor then it may be these things as well. It was in these mountains that I wandered among the rocks as though wild and went without my reflection for half a year. In due time I shot and ate my horse. I ate cactus. I sucked water from the undersides of stones.
A lioness hunted me throughout the mountains for nearly a month. I felt her eyes on me in the day and her breath on my neck in the otherwise cold of the night as she judged my soul from the depth of her own which moved without language. Throughout the otherwise blankness of the days I would catch a glimpse of her shoulders moving over the rocks, her tail flipping in the shadows, her thighs swinging up the goat-paths, though no goat did I ever find in that place.
One night by the light of a fire I saw the green of her eyes hanging in the darkness beyond the ring of the flame. I walked to the edge of the black of the rest of the world, and I asked her plainly what she could want of me, and to this I received no response. And neither did the eyes fade for as long as I watched throughout a sleepless and wind-driven night. With the dawn I came to understand the depth of her power, for where those eyes had been was a drop into faceless rock below.
Was I mad? There exists no gauge in that place for the mind required to awake each day and then into the next. I came down into the plain with the first snow, and I made for San Juan Del Rio. The empty pistol had long been useless but I was desirous of keeping it near me. Despite my wild appearance I was soon recognized by the people there and put in jail for the night, my execution scheduled for the morning next.
In the morning before shooting me, they took me out to grind a barrel of nixtamal. The guard stood by as I sat in the dirt of the yard in clothes the cleanest I had worn in a year. These were the garments given to prisoners who were all subsequently shot. Looking at my legs as they stretched before me on the dirt of the yard I studied the faded and innumerable streaks of the last life’s blood of the executed as they intertwined in myriad shades.
“My friend,” I said to the guard, a fat and lazy man with long mustaches. “How many innocent men have you seen wear these pants into that yard?”
The guard spat. “None,” he said. His hands moved about his rifle without purpose.
“How many,” I continued, “do you suppose deserved to be shot like a dog for the righteous killing of an evil man?”
“I make no judgments of those already judged,” he said.
The guard was silent for a time and then turned suddenly. “Get back to grinding,” he shouted, “and wipe that stupid grin off your face. What is there to laugh about when you will be dead inside the hour?”
I gripped the stone pestle in my hands and I said, “I go to meet the Savior with a pure and open heart because my actions have been justified.” I bent once more to the work and ground through the grain with purpose. My guard appeared to calm himself, and his rising color told me that he had become ashamed of his outburst, and that he believed himself to be a man of principle. Yet I suspected by his shame that it was principle adopted from principled men, and not otherwise earned.
“I wonder,” I said to the work under my hands, “if you feel so justified, my friend. You, whose purpose is to shepherd men into the arms of death so sanctioned by the dons of the state.”
This had the desired effect, and my guard sputtered and gripped his rifle again.
“You,” I continued, “who would not judge, and yet are as much a peasant as myself and are so ready to betray your own people simply because a judge with beautiful horses and land commands you to do so. A judge who no doubt secured such things through the blood of your own family.”
The guard bent down quickly, so close that his mustaches brushed against my cheek. His breath smelled of liquor and he said, “It is better to kill vermin like you than allow you to breed,” and at this I brained him with the pestle until I felled him like an ox. Indeed I continued to beat him there after he had ceased to move or to make a sound. When at length I raised my head I heard not even the birds around me.
I ran to the low wall and climbed it and headed for the nearby river. Out past the few ramshackle houses of stone and through a low stand of trees I moved and my thoughts likewise moved beneath me, buoyant, and clear. I found a suitable pace and sustained it, moving eastward. And as I did so the day slowed, much as water around objects which are hard and undeniable and I knew that I had slipped the hand of fate. I knew as well as I felt my heart move within me of its own accord that a rhythm older than the god who would make mere echoes of this had risen free of explanation to the face of things.
At length I came to a river and there, standing as though placed by a hand was a wild colt, watering in the shallows. I mounted him, and I rode him upstream. After a few leagues the horse tired and I let it go, and I walked north toward Rio Grande. In time I arrived at the house of a distant cousin, and he took me in without question. He and his young wife made a place for me at their table, and she fed me tortillas and eggs. I ate from their plates like the starving boy I was until at length my cousin’s toddler began to pull at my pant leg. The little boy’s face was serious, round and soft as a doll. I pulled him onto my knee and there we spoke about ponies and dogs and the moon in the daytime sky. He told me it was his birthday. His eyes were as bright as riverstones.
Cameron MacKenzie's work has appeared in Able Muse, The Rumpus, SubStance and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals. His essays have been collected in The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospective and Edward P. Jones: New Essays. His novel The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career is available from Madhat Press. He teaches English at Ferrum College and writes reviews for Roanoke Review.
You can read our interview with Cameron about his new novel here.