Anna Laird Barto
When we arrive in Santa Elena the wind has been already been blowing for 24 hours, downing trees and sending roofs sailing all over town. Even the internet is affected, at least that’s what they tell us at the hostel when they can’t find our reservation. But we are lucky chicas, says the manager. There is one room left at his other hostel, the world’s only hostel located both “downtown and in the cloud forest.” It’s a private cabin, but he’s willing to charge us the same rate we reserved online. He drives us there in his jeep, running over a rainbow on the way. The colors hover above the wet blacktop before dissolving into raindrops on the windshield.
Our cabin looks out on waving branches where black and white monkeys appear and disappear before I can grab my camera. Most of the hostel’s human guests are backpackers in their 20s. Proper adults stay at the resort hotels inside the Monte Verde Reserve, but we are single, childless women, and our wealth is experiential only. We both speak fluent Spanish and have lived in countries where the forest hides things more fearsome than sloths and florescent frogs, things like maras and paramilitaries. It’s hard not to think of Costa Rica Latin America Lite.
After dinner we go on a night tour of the reserve. It’s calmer on the forest floor, but we can hear the treetops hissing and thrashing in the darkness overhead. Our guide stops and aims his flashlight into the canopy.
Look, a sloth!
I crane my neck but can’t make out anything that might not just as easily be swaying tree limbs. A little while later, our guide discovers a viper coiled around a bush, ready to strike at his flashlight. It’s the size of a garter snake and the color of a green highlighter. Normally vipers are arboreal, he says, but the wind has forced it down to our level. The same with the toucan the flashlight beam caught sleeping, banana-shaped bill tucked in its tail.
All night the wind roars down the mountain, rattling our cabin roof and pelting us with pieces of of forest—leaves, branches, nuts, twigs—pinging like shrapnel on the corrugated steel. I lie awake, imagining sloths swaying in the silver-backed leaves above us, snakes spiraled in the shrubbery. The cabin walls are wood-paneled, like the inside of a ship. As I fall asleep, I feel the ship jerk from its moorings and dream we’re adrift on stormy seas.
The winds are unseasonable, they say—the park guide, the manager who calls us chicas, the woman at the soda where we buy our five-dollar rice and beans. Because of the wind nothing works: the phones, the internet, and even the hot water heater behind our cabin—at least that’s what the manager tells us chicas, although we can’t see the connection.
On the third day, the landline is working enough for us to book a massage. Getting a massage is on the checklist of things to do in Santa Elena. The pastel signs are everywhere, beside the billboards of startled toucans, sloths and tourists dangling from zip-lines. But the downtown spas are booked for days. The only place we can get an appointment is a couple miles outside the town center.
The wind has subsided a little by the time we set off. It’s drizzling on and off and rainbows appear and disappear above the road before I can get my camera out. The air is filled with the sounds of birds and hammers, as the citizenry of Santa Elena tries to secure their roofs before nightfall.
After about ten minutes, the houses get fewer and farther between. We pass a lodge where Minnesotan is spoken, according to the sign. After that there is nothing but forest, until we see the billboard.
The billboard has a rusty patina, as if it’s been here for years, but that could be from the constant moisture. I’ve been here only three days, and already my skull feels stuffed with moss and I half-expect bromeliads to sprout from my ears any moment.
The billboard has no words, but depicts a cartoon frog reclined on a table, a white towel draped across his midsection. He’s attended by another frog, this one wearing a blue dress. Below the billboard is a rusty cattle gate that doesn’t appear to lead anywhere. We’re about to give up we spy a one-story turquoise house, with an intact roof, in the shadow of the tall tall trees. I follow around her the gate and through the overgrown garden.
We’re probably trespassing, I say. They’re going to come after us with a machete.
Tara raps on the door, and it creaks ajar.
Hola? We peer inside the empty living room. The white walls are covered in framed diplomas and posters of human anatomy.
At last, a woman emerges from behind a 4-foot poster of a human ear, which covers the back of an interior door. She’s solid and pink-skinned, with curly white hair.
Yes, we are in the right place, but no, she is not a Masseuse; she is a Physical and an Auricular Therapist. She gestures to the diplomas and the giant ear.
I go first. The walls and ceiling of the treatment room are draped with pink and white fabric, as if I’ve ducked beneath the skirts of the Sugar Plum Fairy. I change into a white gown and plop myself onto the table.
Push harder, I tell her, as she gently explores my upper back with her fingers. I can take it. I walk. I bike. I yoga. I carry heavy things: 12-packs of juicy juice, goldfish crackers, board books, glue sticks, laptop, the fate of a generation. Even on vacation I feel the weight. My muscles burn like hot rocks beneath my skin, but I’m afraid to set it down. The raw sensation reminds me I’m alive. Without it, I fear I’ll float away.
Do I mind if she gives me a special treatment? But I must promise to pass it on to other women.
We carry too much, she says. Too many children, most of all. She knows women whose shoulders stopped working. Do I know how much a new shoulder costs? I have no idea.
She rolls me onto my right side and extends my left arm parallel to the floor. She moves it slowly two and fro in the socket until the hot rocks crackle and dissolve, then she flips me over and repeats on the other side. Now, it’s time to see if I can do it for myself. Still lying on my side, I grasp my top wrist with the opposite hand and tug gently until I feel a release, more subtle this time, like plucking a ripe fruit from the stem.
The old woman clucks her tongue approvingly. Do this every week, she says, and tell other women. Also, stop carrying heavy things, or else..!
I rise from the table feeling lighter and my brain moss-free. While Tara is having her treatment, I follow a well-worn path through the darkening trees, leading me down in a series of switchbacks. The angle of the setting sun throws the hillside into shadow, while the dark, tangled vines frame my view of the sunlit valley below. White mist rushes past, as if I’m standing on the banks of a fast moving stream. Suspended in the moving beads of moisture, at a near vertical angle, is the biggest rainbow I have ever seen. I can see straight through it to the giant ceiba trees on the opposite ridge.
I flick on my camera and start shooting willy nilly, afraid the rainbow will disappear before I get a good shot. I stray from the trail, sliding on my butt through wet weeds to get a closer view. The rainbow doesn’t disappear, or ever hold still. Each particle of light hovers, perfectly balanced, in the current of mist. If anything the colors only grow more vivid as I watch. I lose track of how long I stand here, playing with my shutter. Where the sky was blue its now pale peach, but the rainbow remains. I decide to the chance it, and descend another switchback, then another. The path beneath my feet is getting harder to see, but the view around each bend is more exquisite than the last. Now I can see that this rainbow is just one of several bands arching across the valley. The forest around me is almost completely dark now, throbbing with insects and frog sounds. I look back at the rainbow one more time, still pulsating in the torrent of mist, before stumbling up the dark path toward the house. The wind is picking up again, turning the leaves upside down with a sound like rushing water.
I’m almost at the top when I run into Tara. Let’s get out of here, she says. While I’ve been chasing rainbows, she’s been listening to the old woman quote the price per body part in dollars and in colones; how much for an eye, a leg, one finger, or three.
“Are you a witch?” Tara asked, as if she didn’t know the answer.
The woman smiled. “Of course I am.”
We return to town with the wind at our backs. The air gathers force as it flows around and over us, whipping our hair like sea spray. I extend my arms and feel the force of lift. My shoulders relax into their sockets, but my arms are held aloft by the currents. If I just lean in I could fly, like a witch, high above the thrashing forest. But the animal in me would rather cleave to the swaying trees, or secret myself in the undergrowth until the wind stops.
BIO: Anna Laird Barto has an MFA from Emerson College and have published essays in The Establishment, GulfStream, What we Seee, About Place Journal and elsewhere. My fiction has been nominated for the Push-cart Prize and shortlisted for Glimmer Train and New Millennium stories. I also attended the 2017 Sewanee Writer’s Conference as a Tennessee Williams Scholar. For more information and clips visit http://www.annalairdbarto.com.
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