“¿Hablan español, ustedes?”
“Un poquito,” Thea Blettner answered the driver, a personable Tico named Manuel.
“Un poco,” Lawrence Blettner said in turn, speaking for himself. They were riding in a private transfer van from Liberia in Guanacaste Province—where they’d flown into Daniel Oduber Quiros International from Newark that Monday morning—to Arenal, in Alajuela, where they would be staying four nights at the Pura Vida Resort and Spa. The airport and the hotel were only 85 miles apart, but the trip would take just under three hours because the highway—the only available route—was a one-lane road and the velocidad máxima was 60 kph, or under 40 mph. A New Jersey driver would have made the trip in under an hour, or at least tried… but for the fact that speeding in Costa Rica brought mandatory jail time. At any rate, the Blettners had not even considered renting a car. They were in Costa Rica to relax, at all costs.
“Why is it un poquito for me but un poco for you?” Thea asked her husband.
“Because I know a little, and you know… a very little. A smidgen. A tad.”
“It’s just a fact: I remember a fair amount of the Spanish I learned in high school. More than un poquito. And you studied French.”
“¿Estudió español en escuela?” Miguel asked Lawrence, continuing to address him with an at least linguistic deference that Lawrence would just as soon have preferred Miguel to dispense with.
“En colegio, sí.”
On one side of the road, puercos were mingling with perros. Beyond them were a line of papaya trees, and beyond those was a field where rice was being harvested. Tico cuisine, such as it is, involved a great deal of rice, the Blettners understood. Every meal included gallo pinto, a traditional dish of rice and beans. More rice than beans, reportedly. Thea had done no small amount of reading up on la comida costarricense before their trip—the honeymoon they were only getting around to a little more than two years after their wedding. But even before they’d known where they would have their marriage ceremony and reception, they’d agreed that they wanted to honeymoon in Costa Rica. It seemed like everyone they knew, both together and separately, had been to the country, and everyone described it as a paradise.
“My English is not so good,” Manuel said, bringing Lawrence back to the here and now.
“Not true,” Lawrence disagreed, and sincerely: “Your English is very good.”
“Muchas gracias, señor,” Manuel said.
“Con mucho gusto.” It sounded to Lawrence like Manuel was correcting him.
“En Mexico,” Manuel explained, “dicen de nada, pero en Costa Rica, decimos con mucho gusto.”
“¡Ah! Es bueno saber. Gracias.”
“Con mucho gusto.”
“Te dire… más tarde.”
“Oh. Ha,” Lawrence laughed at himself. “I mean: I’ll tell you later.”
And then suddenly the van was pulling off the road.
“¿Qué pasó?” Lawrence asked. He’d learned that not in school but from a Portuguese colleague.
“Monos,” Manuel said.
“Monos?” Thea asked.
“Monkeys,” Manuel translated, getting out of the vehicle, then helping the Blettners out so that they, to, could see the animals in the trees. “There are four different species of monkeys in Costa Rica. These are howlers.”
“How many species of birds?” Thea asked. Thea Blettner was particularly fond of birds.
“Six hundred different species are resident,” Manuel told his passengers. “Another two hundred fifty visit for the warm weather. How long will you be here?”
“Cinco días,” Lawrence said.
“Five days? Maybe you will see them all!”
The Blettners laughed with Manuel.
It took them almost four hours to get to the hotel, mainly because of how often they stopped to see one exotic thing or another, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral.
When they finally arrived at the Pura Vida—where they were met at the front entrance by a solicitous young blond woman who offered them each a hot face towel—it was already dusk. Although considerably and enjoyably warmer than New Jersey, Costa Rica was still subject to the early sunsets of Central Standard Time in December. No matter; the Blettners were plenty tired from a day of travel, so they checked in and just lazed about in their private casita after dinner, glad that they had gotten to see so much of the native flora and fauna on the ride to their lodgings. They turned in on the early side—though not before marveling at how much space they had to themselves (more square footage than in their co-op) and how… well, manufacturedly romantic the place was, with an indoor, glass-enclosed shower for two, an outdoor shower, a patio with a Jacuzzi, a complimentary bottle of sparkling white wine….
All of that would have to wait, though. The large bed beckoned. In the morning, they’d be hiking on the side of the Volcán Arenal, one of the country’s seven active volcanoes, one of some hundred and twelve volcanoes in total in the nation that covered less than 20,000 square miles—about the same size as one of the U.S. states, Lawrence Blettner had read somewhere, though he couldn’t remember which state. He fell asleep trying to name all fifty in alphabetical order.
Thea took a bit longer to nod off, excited as she was about the many and various birds she was very much looking forward to watching, even if it would be from a distance.
Their guide for the volcano introduced himself as Raúl, which prompted Thea and Lawrence to share a private giggle, since Raúl was the name Lawrence sometimes used when they were getting frisky and silly at once.
When Raúl took a break from explaining everything anyone could possibly ever have wanted to know about volcanoes to point out a Lattice-tailed Trogon (although at first they thought he’d said Lady’s-tailed)—one of ten or eleven different kinds of trogon in Costa Rica—in a tree Raúl regrettably could not identify reliably from afar. But just the fact that he’d caught sight of the small bird seriously impressed the Blettners.
“Good eye!” Thea complimented Raúl.
“I have a lot of practice,” he said. “I spend a lot of time in nature. And I’ve learned where to look, and what to look for.”
“Are you ever surprised, then?” Lawrence asked.
“Sure,” Raúl confessed. “I was surprised in 2007 when the volcano started making noise again.”
“!Dios mio!” Lawrence said. “What’d you do?”
“We ran like hell,” Raúl said, and laughed.
Later in the hike, on the way back down from a climb over some large and not entirely immobile volcanic boulders, when the ground beneath their feet was steady enough again for carefree conversation, Thea asked Raúl about the relationship between the people and the animals of Costa Rica, being that there were so many animals, of so many different kinds, most of them wild.
“We get a long very well,” Raúl remarked. “The indigenous peoples of Costa Rica believed that each of us has a spirit animal. Not that we come back as animals after we die——”
“Not reincarnation,” Lawrence put in.
“——but that each of us has a special relationship with a certain kind of animal, and those animals help to guide us, if we are willing to let them. Or something,” Raúl added. “But to answer your question,” he said to Thea, “modern-day Ticos get along with the animals of Costa Rica better than we get along with Nicaraguans. At least lately.” Raúl laughed again.
On the drive back to the hotel, Raúl explained to the Blettners the current tension between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Lawrence and Thea listened attentively and nodded sympathetically but judiciously said nothing.
It was early—just after noon—when they pulled up again to Pura Vida, and their next destination was the hotel restaurant, for a lunch both Lawrence and Thea were much in need of. But they were distracted—and lunch delayed some—by a bird on the hotel grounds. On a wooden table outside in a small courtyard—tearing up the table, in fact, with its beak—was a scarlet macaw.
“Look!” Thea exclaimed.
“Awesome,” Lawrence said.
They walked directly to the bird’s table and, while the bird more or less ignored them and continued to rip strips of varnished soft wood out of the furniture, they took seats at the table. Then Thea started taking photos. She still had her camera from the volcano hike. In fact, she had every intention of keeping her camera on her person at all times, excepting perhaps only when they were in the Jacuzzi.
After several minutes, Lawrence decided to try something. He extended an arm toward the macaw, keeping his hand in a fist. No need to risk losing a finger, he figured, in case the bird got snappy. That beak looked strong. It was, after all, making short work of finished wood.
At first, the bird paid Lawrence no mind… but then it noticed him, his arm, and seemed to be considering taking a break from exercising its beak and accepting the invitation to climb onto a new perch. And, eventually, the bird did just that. First it tested Lawrence’s bare exposed arm with its beak—poking, but not biting—then gingerly stepped onto it with one foot, then brought its other foot along with more confidence. And then it just sat on Lawrence’s arm—still fully extended, still ending in a clenched fist—doing little else, although its talons were digging forcefully if not quite piercingly into Lawrence’s skin.
“Wow,” Thea said.
“I’m impressed, honey. I would never have done that. Does it hurt?”
“Yes,” Lawrence said. “Yes, it does. But not a lot.” The bird’s talons were not particularly sharp, but neither were they dull, and the creature was gripping Lawrence’s arm pretty tightly.
Lawrence prompted the bird to step off from his arm again. The bird took the hint and returned to the table top.
“We’ll be back,” Lawrence told the creature. Then the Blettners went to lunch, both of them pretty proud of Lawrence. And Thea had gotten some good shots, too.
After lunch, try as they might, they couldn’t get a satisfactory answer about where the bird was from—how it had gotten to the hotel, that is, and when and whether it lived there—and whether it belonged to anyone or just hung around even though it was free to leave at any time. Different hotel employees had different stories and theories about the bird, but no one could tell the Blettners anything for certain, which led them to suspect that the bird had been a fixture at the hotel longer than anyone currently working there.
Scarlet macaws—which can live for 90 years!—are indeed native to Costa Rica, Thea later read in the birding book she’d brought with her. This one, though, might have been someone’s pet once. Now it seemed to be just an unattached bird with a loyalty to the Pura Vida.
It rained—torrentially—on Tuesday afternoon, keeping the Blettners inside until they were hungry again, at which time it was dark already again, and they got an even earlier start on Wednesday morning, when they took another drive—this one for just two hours—to a boat launch in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Frío, only about fifteen miles from the Nicaragua border. Then for another two hours, they and another couple (from New Hampshire), a single woman (from New Mexico, whose husband had cheated on her and who was, by the terms of their divorce settlement, paying for her trip), and yet another very knowledgeable, attentive, and bilingual Tico guide named Elmer (with a pontoon boat pilot who spoke no English) cruised on the water and saw more monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, basilisk lizards, caimans, spoonbills, ibises, anhingas, cormorants, and a couple of ducks and one cow. Both Elmer and the pilot (whose name they didn’t catch) were absurdly good at spotting animals. As exciting as all of that was, though, Lawrence couldn’t help but frequently think about the bird at the hotel and look forward to getting it to climb onto his arm again, with any luck later that day.
“Hola. Hello. Hola.”
“Well,” Lawrence said, “that’s new. And impressive.” For it was the scarlet macaw greeting them.
“That must be what it hears the most,” Thea remarked. “And he, or she”—because they didn’t know the sex of the bird—“must be feeling more comfortable with us, or you, now.”
Indeed, the bird was already once again on Lawrence’s arm. He, Lawrence, had learned the trick of leading the parrot by the beak, something Thea had commented that professional bird handlers did. Lawrence had grown more comfortable with the bird, more confident that it was not going to hurt him. Thea was not yet there, though.
“Do you want to try?” Lawrence asked her. The bird was meanwhile testing—or tasting?—his hand with its tongue, large and black and reminiscent of a worm, Lawrence thought. No, a slug. But the bird wasn’t biting him. Just poking him from time to time.
“Sure,” Thea said, but her husband knew her better. Lawrence guided the creature onto his wife’s outstretched arm. “Make a fist,” he suggested. She did.
The bird promptly scurried in the direction opposite Thea’s fist, walking the length of her arm toward her torso, then climbing onto her shoulder. Soon it was nipping her ear.
Thea squeaked. The bird squawked. Lawrence removed the bird from his wife.
“Okay,” Thea said. “That was fun. I’m going to go back to the room now. While I still have both my ears, and my eyes, and all my blood’s inside me.” Lawrence laughed. “But for real,” Thea said, “I’m going to get some rest before dinner. Maybe sit in the hot tub. Maybe you’ll join me?”
“Sure,” Lawrence said. “In a bit.”
“Great. You boys behave yourselves.”
“We will. Love you.”
Thea left her husband and his bird friend at their table near the outdoor pool.
“Señor?” This wasn’t the bird speaking, but a waiter. “Something to drink?”
“Ah…,” Lawrence said, “sure. Yeah. A… piña colada, por favor. Muchas gracias.”
“Con musto gusto.”
It was another ten minutes, though, before the waiter returned with the drink, which made sense only when the drink finally arrived, as it was not a simple concoction served in a hurricane class, but a whole production—a scooped-out pineapple with a face made of fruits and vegetables: radish-slice-and-maraschino-cherry eyes; a strawberry nose; a honeydew mouth; and lime wedge ears. It was, in a word, disturbing… to look at. But the drink inside the pineapple head was undeniably delicious. It was good enough, in fact, to distract Lawrence from his bird friend, who spent the time preening itself. The macaw was scarlet, but mostly only in name. That is, it had plumage of vibrant red, yellow, and blue—some individual feathers displaying more than one color. Lawrence realized that he would have loved to have one of the bird’s feathers as a souvenir—both of the trip as a whole and of the bird itself—but Lawrence was certainly not about to pluck one, of course. Cruelty to animals was something Lawrence Blettner could not abide.
The drink was good. It was very good. Maybe the best piña colada Lawrence had ever had. He thought about ordering another, but then decided not to. There was a beautiful woman waiting for him in a hot tub…. so he raised an arm to catch the eye of the outdoor pool waiter, to ask for something to sign so the cost of the drink, whatever it was, would be put on the Blettners’ room tab… and in doing so, Lawrence got the attention of the macaw again. The bird hopped down from the chair back it was chewing onto the table, then walked over to Lawrence. And then something very odd happened.
The bird had not before now looked directly at Lawrence, but now it did. It made eye contact, as it were… though Lawrence wondered whether a bird with its eyes on the sides of its head could focus on something in front of it, the way humans could and did. His wondering was abruptly interrupted, though, when his own thoughts were replaced, forcefully, but a vision, or something, of a man being violently murdered. That is, all of a sudden and without either warning or explanation, Lawrence experienced a flash of… memory? But it couldn’t be memory, of course, because Lawrence had never seen this before, never before witness a man being… stabbed… repeatedly, bleeding profusely, screaming… although Lawrence couldn’t hear anything. He could only see…
And then, as abruptly as it had started, it stopped. The silent scene ended, and Lawrence Blettner was again just sitting at a wooden table beside an outdoor pool at a hotel in Costa Rica, with a bird….
The bird was no longer looking at Lawrence. The bird wasn’t even there anymore. In the bird’s place was a receipt for Lawrence to sign. He signed it with a trembling hand, then got up and left the pool area for his casita.
What the hell was that? he asked himself, even though he knew he didn’t have the answer.
At their casita, Lawrence found Thea asleep in the bed. Her bathing suit drying on the wooden railing of their patio told him that she had already been in and gotten out of the hot tub. Had he taken much longer to meet up with her than he’d thought? He supposed he had.
Thea looked like she was enjoying her nap, so in order not to disturb her Lawrence went out onto the patio, sliding the glass doors closed behind him, and climbed into the hammock. Lawrence liked hammocks. If he fell asleep, Thea would wake him for dinner, he figured.
As it happened, they both slept straight through dinner. When they got up in the late evening, they watched some television—American sitcoms subtitled in Spanish—and snacked on fruit they’d acquired and collected in their room more or less by accident since arriving in the country.
The activity for their fourth day—the last before they returned to the Liberia airport and then the U.S.—was a tour of the hanging bridges of Arenal, which offered incomparable views of the rain forest from well above the ground. The views should have been simply awe-inspiring—and they were, for Thea. Lawrence, though, was decidedly distracted, even when they crossed the highest of the hanging bridges, some 150 feet above the forest floor. Thea noticed, but she didn’t say anything right away. She was a little distracted herself, both by the additional flora and fauna on display and the fact that they were crossing suspension bridges—which tended to sway more than a little—pretty high up among the tree middles, if not quite the tops.
When they returned for the last time to the hotel, Thea said she thought they should finally get the half-hour couple’s massage included in their package deal. Lawrence said that he just wasn’t in the mood, and even though it was their only opportunity to get something they’d paid for in advance, he thought Thea should just go without him, if that was okay. She said it was okay, if he really didn’t want a massage, which he said he didn’t. He thought he’d go into the hot tub, unless she wanted him not to, so that they could go in together, later. She said it was okay, that he could go in now if he wanted to. He said he might.
So Thea left the casita for the spa. Lawrence stayed behind and at first just puttered around a bit, going through the receipts and other papers he’d accumulated in his wallet and pockets, deciding what to keep and what to throw out. This lasted no more than five minutes. Lawrence didn’t want to get a massage, but he also didn’t want to just sit in their room, so in turn he went out, thinking he’d just walk around the beautiful hotel grounds. He had every intention of avoiding the outdoor pool area.
But soon enough it became apparent that Lawrence Blettner didn’t want to be walking around outside either. What he wanted was to stop thinking about what he had seen—or “seen”—the day before, and wondering how a single piña colada could cause him to have a vision of killing another man—because when he thought about what he’d seen, as he couldn’t seem to help doing, it was obvious that the vision, the memory, was from the perspective of the one who had done the killing. And although the vision had quickly become just a memory of itself in Lawrence’s mind, with hardly any clarity left to it, still it caused him no small amount of anxiety.
As he walked up to the casita, he saw Thea leaving it.
“I thought you were at the spa,” he said.
“I wanted to do something for you before I went. You seem pretty down about something, so I picked up a surprise for you. It’s on the deck.”
“Aw,” Lawrence said. “That’s very sweet.” And he meant it.
“Maybe later you’ll tell me what’s on your mind?” Thea asked.
“Sure,” Lawrence said, but he wasn’t. “Meanwhile, go enjoy your massage.”
“I’m going. Oh, one more thing, though: What’s a yuda?”
“A yuda? Do you mean a yucca?”
“No,” Thea said. “I know what yucca is. A yuda.”
“Where’d you hear it?”
“Someone said it.”
“Wait. Did they say ‘yuda,’ or ‘ayuda’?”
“Ayuda. That’s what I just said.”
“I thought——. Never mind. Ayuda—one word—means help. Ayúdame means help me.”
“Huh. Okay,” Thea said. “I’ll see you later. Enjoy your surprise.”
“On the deck.”
“On the deck.”
For the next half hour, Thea enjoyed a back massage—administered by a trained, and quite talented, masseuse—with some front included, which she didn’t mind at all. It was delightful. The woman even massaged her ears, which was considerably more enjoyable that having her ears given attention by a scarlet macaw, no matter how much Thea loved birds. It was just that birds can be… unpredictable, Thea knew.
When Thea returned to the casita, she found her husband on the patio… with the scarlet macaw from the outdoor pool area—for the bird was the surprise she had left him there, having summoned the courage to let it step up onto her arm, then walked back to the room with it, slowly, slowly, then depositing it on the wooden railing of the balcony, which kept a person from falling some ten feet to the ground below, the casita itself being elevated considerably, possibly to prevent flooding when it rained heavily, as it often did. Thea Blettner found just what she’d hoped and expected to find, but at the same time not at all what was supposed to be.
Lawrence was standing on the deck railing, trying to get at the bird, which was on the roof of the casita.
“Honey?” Thea asked.
Lawrence didn’t respond. He was single-mindedly trying to reach the bird, Thea saw.
“Is he stuck?” she asked.
Lawrence became aware of his wife’s presence then. He looked down at her, standing on the deck proper. “Go inside,” he said. He looked… crazed, Thea thought.
“Go,” Lawrence whispered. Something in his voice made Thea believe that doing as he said was a matter of life and death. She went inside, but from behind the screen door she called to her husband, “Honey, get down! Come here! What’s going on?!”
Lawrence stopped trying to get at the bird. Lawrence climbed down from the deck railing. He joined his wife inside the casita, closing the solid glass doors as well as the screens as he did so.
Without preface, he told Thea, “I think that bird killed someone. A man. I think the bird killed a man.”
“I saw it. Or, I saw something. The other day… yesterday, the bird looked straight at me, for the first time, and I saw something in my mind that wasn’t a memory, and it wasn’t a hallucination… but it was something, and it was… horrific.
“And then again, just before, out there. The bird looked me in the eye and I saw it again. A man being… hacked to pieces. Slashed up. I could see it as if it was happening right in front of me. Right in front of me, like I was the one doing the hacking…. And I could see the man screaming, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying… until I did hear it, but it was coming from the bird. The bird was saying Ayuda… Ayuda…!”
Lawrence was now gripping Thea’s wrists in his hands. She was afraid. Her husband had evidently gone off the deep end… except that some of what he was saying made some sense. Not much of it, but the part about the bird saying, “Ayuda.” That’s where she’d heard the word earlier.
But Lawrence thought the bird had… killed someone? It was ludicrous. Birds don’t kill people. Scarlet macaws surely don’t kill people.
“Honey,” Thea said, “why don’t you lay down. Let me get you some water….” Thea led her husband to the bed, then walked around the central wall in the room to the sink… but as soon as Lawrence was out of her sight, she heard the doors to the patio opening. She left the water and sprinted after her husband.
Lawrence was up on the railing again.
The bird was still on the roof.
“At first I thought it was the drink,” Lawrence was saying, though he didn’t seem to be talking to Thea. He was just talking, giving voice to his thoughts while he was trying to coax the bird to him. “But it was just one drink, and a drink doesn’t make you see a murder. Then I remembered what Raúl said, about spirit animals. And I thought this bird, this bird that did see a murder, must be someone’s spirit animal. But that didn’t mean anything, either. So I thought about what Raúl said about reincarnation, and I realized that he might be wrong. We all might be wrong, if we don’t believe that we come back. And it all makes sense if this bird killed somebody before he was a bird, when he was a man. And I almost let it go, because the memory of the vision had all but faded away completely, but then I saw it again, today, right here, with this goddamned bird——”
“Honey!” Thea ran to the railing and grabbed hold of Lawrence’s shorts. He had started to slip, having nearly lost his footing when he’d lunged for the bird on the roof.
“Hello,” the bird said just then. “Hola.”
“Honey, be careful! Please!”
“Hello,” Lawrence parroted the bird. “Hola. Ayuda. Ayudame.”
“Sweetheart,” Thea said, forcing herself to sound much calmer than she felt. “Let the bird be. It’ll fly away on its own.”
“I don’t want it to fly away,” Lawrence said. “I have to… get it.”
Lawrence paused, then said, hauntingly directly, “So I can snap its neck.”
But the time for talking was past, Thea could see. Her husband sincerely meant to get at the parrot on the roof of their honeymoon cabin… and to kill it, believing that it was the reincarnation of a murderer. She couldn’t let him do that, though. She realized that she was still holding him by his shorts.
Thea Blettner pushed her husband off the railing of the patio. Lawrence Blettner fell through the lush and colorful privacy fauna to the ground ten feet below, where he then lay motionless and silent.
Not yet realizing just what she had done, Thea Blettner herself remained frozen, with her arms still stretched out before her. The scarlet macaw resident at the Pura Vida Resort and Spa swooped down from the roof of casita number 32 and alit on Thea’s left arm.
The bird looked directly at Thea, and Thea looked back at the bird. Then, with a sound from its throat that could not have been prompted by anything other than sheer terror, such as a prey animal might feel in the presence of a predator, the bird flew off swiftly, dropping a single yellow-and-blue feather onto the patio floor.