The Guardian

by O. D. Hegre


The Costa Rican resort exceeded even the colonel’s standards. The montane flourished with the spring rains and almost every day a heavy layer of moisture dipped into the canopy of the forest; the colonel could walk among the clouds. Age had claimed a few inches from his frame, and a cane dampened the swagger in his walk. Still, the colonel was an impressive figure.

The coolness of the late afternoon seemed to ease the pain as he made his way along the Cecropia-lined paths. For him the mist brought a refreshing pause in his struggle; for one who watched the man disappear into the thickening haze, it might seem as if a soul had just made its way into heaven.

* * *

Most of the Spa’s clientele found themselves on the far side of middle age; they were there for the holistic treatments and spiritual commune with nature. But now a young guest had arrived, a woman and a particularly intriguing exception for the colonel.

His masseuse feigned ignorance and the maitre d’ only smiled at his inquiry. It seemed guest privacy trumped curiosity at Bosque Tropical. The colonel had described her to a couple of his acquaintances. The novelist from Leeds — a hopeless romantic — suggested a Bahraini princess. The Detroit industrialist — eager to meet her, as well — put his money on an aspiring actress.

Later that day, the colonel came across the young woman, alone, out on the east patio. He always preferred the direct approach. He knew most found him stiff and unsympathetic, but after all, as a leader of men, indecisiveness remained a luxury of commoners.

The American had it right. An injury during a dress rehearsal for the production of Molière’s Le Misanthrope at the Comédie-Française in Paris brought the young woman here for two weeks of relaxation and rehabilitation.

Too little time... so much more on his mind but his level of discomfort — had he forgotten to take his medication? — forced him into a small canard: late for an appointment, he wondered if she could join him later that evening? She agreed.

* * *

The colonel watched the woman’s eyes scan the room. For him, his ‘hour upon the stage’ proved a series of enigmas: perplexities itching for solutions. He had reveled in the challenges. Yet even at his age, life still held tightly to its deepest secrets and women were among them. But he could feel a revelation coming. With her he wanted — he needed — clarity. There was something about this woman.

The colonel managed to raise his hand. It wasn’t necessary. He could not take his eyes from her as she moved toward him. The women of the bazaar, he thought as he sipped his wine. He’d spent time in the Middle East after the war — in Damascus, in Baghdad. There, they draped themselves in dark garments, the hijab and niqab revealing only their eyes.

Tonight he saw more. Tall, dressed in black, her long hair flowed about her bronze shoulders. The brilliant red stone of her pendant dazzled in the dim light. He could appreciate the insightfulness of the novelist’s conjecture — a princess.

Perhaps, he thought.

Still, her eyes, they captivated him so — large tapering ellipses, shielded by long dark lashes. Had he seen those eyes before? Women washing clothes in the Ganges flashed from his memory, and for a moment he thought she might have served as one of the secretaries in the Delhi Consulate.

Perhaps.

He sipped the last of his wine as she took the seat next to him. His memory might be deserting him but his taste remained impeccable: a propensity for excellent wine, fine food, even finer liquor and — he leaned back, his cloudy blue eyes staring at her — and beautiful women. Even in his darkest hour, he knew how to treat himself. Self-pity? Rubbish. Just a little coddling and he felt no guilt about it: Sir Charles Latham, the 13th Earl of Pembroke was dying.

Ramón arrived with the merienda and a fresh bottle of wine.

Gracias, Ramón. Another glass for my guest, por favor.”

“Your guest, señor?”

“Yes, Mademoiselle Danielle Beaumont — from Paris... It was Paris, was it not, my dear?” The colonel turned to smile at the woman.

“But Colonel, no comprendo. I don’t underst—”

“Chop, chop, my good man.” Latham returned his gaze to Ramón. “Let us not let this fine vintage languish any longer.”

Ramón lingered for a moment longer and then: “Of course Colonel... of course,” and he was gone.

The colonel watched the woman’s eyes examine the plate of romaine. Sautéed prawns hid among the leaves. He held out his hand in encouragement. Did he see sadness in those eyes?

She raised her palm toward him, then the long fingers of her hands found each other as her gaze returned to his. In that instant he knew she had come to listen.

“Six months they said, if I didn’t opt for their treatment — the whinging bastards.” He stuffed one of the crustaceans into his mouth and chewed vigorously, watching her reaction to that bit of news.

His statement, jarring as it might seem to a stranger, engendered only the gentlest of smiles. The colonel paused. A knowing smile and he sat back.

Ramón returned. The camarero filled a second glass of wine.

The colonel’s chewing resumed and with a splash of wine, he finally managed to swallow the mouthful.

“I’m eighty-nine years old; eighty-nine and I’ve lived a full life — a good life, I think. And now...” The colonel swallowed again. “Now, they want to pump me full of poison so I can live another... another six to eight months. Live in misery with those side effects.”

He paused. Looking up, his eyes again caught hers. He watched as the streaks of gold that creased her brown irises fell into the darkness at the center of her eyes. A Bahraini princess, no doubt, but wasn’t it France...? The thought trailed off.

She tilted her head — in a regal fashion — toward him and her black hair fell across one shoulder. He hadn’t noticed before; tonight she wore it braided in some way. The colonel struggled to see the detail. It reminded him of Fiji somehow.

“I’ll tell you, I did consider it. It’s hard to give it up... to give up. But for me, I want to spend what time I have left in the company of beautiful things — like you, my dear — not vomiting into a bag for four days a week till they drag my bones to the crematorium.” And with shaking hand he lifted his glass to salute her.

Her hands remained clasped, her glass untouched.

“You are not enjoying the wine, my dear. It is an exceptional vintage. From the region of France where you grew up, if I remember correctly.” Had she told him that — France?

“The wine is excellent, I am sure.”

He smiled at her but his mind wandered again. Didn’t the hair of the Maori women...?

“Just a taste I have never acquired, Sir Charles.”

The colonel rolled his glass between the palms of his hands. How long since he’d held the attention of a beautiful young woman? How long since someone — anyone — really listened to what he had to say? Time was short; he knew that. But he would not squander this opportunity to wax philosophical. Besides, he had yet to get to the point of the evening.

“For the mayfly, a matter of hours to complete a lifetime of business; a Senegal can screech for thirty years, and man... eighty or so years to struggle. Well, not that the lower species perceive their own mortality but we...” — he again sipped his wine — “inside” — his gnarled index finger tapped against the side of his head — “in here, I still feel I’m as young as you, my dear.”

For a moment he thought she seemed to leave him — off somewhere. “Have I lost you, Danielle?” Had he gone on too much? The colonel began gnawing on another prawn. The pain in his back had surfaced again.

“No. No, Sir Charles. The knowledge of one’s mortality is a burden humans carry with them throughout their lives. While the body inevitably fails, for some the perception of youth never wanes.”

He could see her eyes glisten. “The perception of youth! By Jove, I’ll drink to that, my dear.” And again the colonel’s glass rose to salute her.

For a moment he sat there, elbows on the table, chin in his hands, just staring at her. Enough of the philosophical poppycock, man. Get on with it... why you asked her here this evening.

“You are so familiar, my dear. It is what drew me to you. Deep inside, I would swear we have met before... when I was young.” For a moment he felt lost, his vision blurring. Then it cleared. “I am sorry, Danielle, how stupid of me. It’s the wine talking, you know.”

“She was important in your life.” It was not a question; he heard the certainty in her voice... an invitation for him to go on.

“I was a young lieutenant, commissioned in Her Majesty’s Service — 3rd Infantry Division. It was the summer of ’44 — Normandy. Along with the Yanks and the bloody Canadians, we had finally taken Caen. I was in a field hospital just south of the Odon. My injuries were minor but a damn infection had me down.

“There were maybe twenty of us lads tended to by this beautiful young nurse. There was one older gentleman, a local resistance fighter. He lay next to me. The morphine helped but clearly not enough. His injuries were mortal, only a matter of time and he was suffering so... calling out to his God to take him.

“The fever was burning in my brain; I was barely conscious, but I remember that evening. She sat beside the old man talking with him as he rambled, wanting it to all end. Then — I know it sounds daft — she bent over him and kissed him. I’m sure she kissed him. It only lasted for a few moments and then... he was quiet. That kiss did what the morphine could not.

“I wandered in and out of consciousness for at least a week, but I remember her by my side, comforting me, but I don’t remember any kiss. Strange.” The colonel looked down at the last shrimp on his plate. “Later I learned the man had passed away. For him, the end to his suffering was a blessing. And once I came around, well... she was gone. Never saw her again. But, by God, if I didn’t know it was impossible....”

He could feel the tears welling in his eyes and he stopped to take a drink of wine.

“Perhaps she — my nurse, my comrade’s savior — was your mother?” The colonel paused. The numbers spun in his head. “No, that wouldn’t work,” and for a moment he flushed at his confusion. “Is it possible that your grandmother was a nurse in the War?” He could not take his eyes from her.

“I never knew my grandmother, Sir Charles — my mother, for that matter, either. Sorry.”

He tried to enter the past and open the storage vault of memories that lingered within him. He knew the nature of a memory: a nebulous thing — an almost imaginary thing — simply the recollection of the last time you experienced that event in your mind, degrading with time as small deviations crept in. In his eighty-nine years, damage had accumulated. He just sat there thinking.

“In this very short time, we have become good friends.”

Her voice was forgiving. “If not years ago, our paths have now crossed. A toast,” and she made the motion with her hand though her filled glass remained at rest on the table. “We will live in the present — in the presence of our youth.”

“Hear, hear!” The colonel laughed out loud. “To the present, my dear,” and he raised his glass to touch her outstretched hand.

“I must go now, Sir Charles.”

The colonel wiped away a dribble of wine, edging its way down his chin. He hadn’t noticed the glittering jewels nestled within her braids until that moment; shimmering little red stones pulsating with light, dancing within the strands of her ebony hair.

“But we will talk again.” She paused to kiss her fingers and he felt the coolness of her touch on his forehead and a soothing warmth passed through him. “Soon... We both know that, I think, my dear Charles.”

He was sure she had winked at him and he felt his cheeks flush as the tears welled. Her image blurred and he closed his eyes, sure the little gems were falling from her braids like crimson drops of rain. A princess, he thought, and he searched for the pain, the anxiety... any discomfort. He found none. It was the wine, of course.

When the colonel opened his eyes, she was gone.

* * *

Ramón had finished stacking the last of the cervesa in the cooler. Now he would polish the wine glasses. The resort was more than three-quarters full. Last night had been very busy.

Of all those elderly guests it was his friend, the colonel, that occupied his thoughts this afternoon. Ramón picked up a long-stemmed goblet. The ravages of age on the mind as well as the body were to be expected, but it was the utter sadness of the old man eating his last meal alone that had the bartender’s eyes misting. “Trágico,” Ramón whispered to himself as he placed the glass in the cabinet. He picked up another. It would never be like that for him. Ramón smiled, thinking of María.

One of the maids had found the colonel that morning — dead in his bed. At least the old man had gone peacefully, Ramón thought as he stored away another glass.

The bartender reached into his pocket. No sense in trying to return them now, Ramón thought, as the small red stones rolled out onto the bar. He had found them at the colonel’s table last night while cleaning up. He’d have them checked out, might be worth something. Maybe he would have his friend Hector set them in a necklace for his wife. Ramón continued polishing the glassware, praying silently to the Madre Santa: no one should die alone... no one.

If heaven is a Kingdom
And Death the passage through,
Then surely the Guardian of that doorway is
A Prince for me,
A Princess for you.


Copyright © 2013 by O. D. Hegre

Proceed to Challenge 552...

Home Page