Note: These are the first paragraphs I wrote for what would become The Hotel Imperial. I thought I was writing a short story. It just didn’t stay short. This is now the beginning of Chapter 2.
The man sat in the shade of an ancient mesquite that clung to a bluff overlooking the river. From a distance, his lean body blended with the twisted limbs and snaking roots. He stared at the water, the color of coffee and milk, watching the rips and roils that marked submerged trees and rocks. It slid past great clumps of river grass twice as tall as a man, their heavy seed heads swaying with the heavings of the water at their feet. Behind the blanket of grass, the riverbank rose steeply before disappearing into a tangle of weeds and brush that stretched to the flanks of a flat earthen levee that held back the water during floods and served as a one-lane highway for farmers and Border Patrol agents. Beyond the levee, the fields stretched to the horizon, vast squares and rectangles stitched together by dirt roads rutted by generations of flatbeds and dented pickups.
Nothing else moved in the afternoon heat. The flatlands of the Rio Grande delta had fallen under the rainless summer spell of the canícula, when the sun seared with a white light, bleaching the color from the sky and dissolving the wisps of clouds that rode the salt breeze from the Gulf.
The man on the bluff ignored the trickle of sweat soaking into his thin shirt and dug the heel of his boot into the chalky soil, dislodging a clump of the caliche and turning it over in his hand to feel for moisture from the last, weak rain. He had been a farmhand once, and handling the soil still calmed him. He had not planted a seed in many years, and the calluses on his hands had all but disappeared. It dissolved into chalk in his fist, sticking to the fresh oil stain along the thick seam of his canvas pants. His eyes didn’t leave the river. He studied the ripples like a man studying his wife’s face, familiar with the topography of every wrinkle and curve and aware of the hazards they are capable of hiding if they are misread. He never misread the river.
©2014 Dave Harmon