“Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Four: Juan & Mariposa Tierra

Read Part One

Read Part Two

Read Part Three

As a thirty-two year old, Juan Tierra began graduate work later than many who transmitted straight from their four-year degree. It was all a matter of funding. He was born in Madrid, and his folks, who were as poor as Job’s goat, were long dead. He took up with his father’s uncle who worked as a banker in London. He was well educated, entering Cambridge a week before he turned seventeen, and graduating in Divinity after three years. His great-uncle died during the summer past his graduation and the heirs cared neither for Juan nor his education.

After securing a student visa, Juan gained acceptance in a small private religious college in Texas. He could only afford this education with scholarships, a part-time job, and hiring himself out as a tutor. He moved to west Texas with all he owned, more books than clothes, in September of 1991.

On his first weekend in America, the day before his first day of graduate school, Juan walked from his crackerbox rental on 13th and Washington past the campus and to the University church of Christ, more for its proximity than for its soundness. After he crossed the parkinglot, he noticed a young woman leaning against the front bumper of a car reading from a book. Her Latin features seemed more continental than provincial, and he was convinced she came from Spain just as he. Juan suddenly became embarrassed of his modest clothing, a blue suit off the rack that didn’t quite fit, a salmon polyester shirt, and a clip-on tie. Just as he froze, he noticed another man, younger than he with fine clothes and a clean look approach the young woman. With a quick burst of self-preservation, Juan hurried toward her. Even though the other man reached her first, he was never intending to speak to her, and passed her by before he walked into the church building. Juan had already found enough momentum to approach her, so he didn’t slow down even after he saw the other man go by her, wardrobe not withstanding.

Juan walked up to her and smiled, but she did not notice since she continued reading, and he knew his only introduction came in speaking, which he decided to do in hard Spanish.

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

The young woman looked over the top of her book and grinned.

“How can I except someone show me?”

“So from where are you reading Old Testament or New?”

She chuckled and held up her book, which Juan noticed to be Love In The Time Of Cholera. It’s then he noticed her Bible behind her on the hood of the car.

“I love this book. It’s my favorite book. Sometimes I wish I were Fermina. Her story is an old one, told my times. She’s just like Catherine or Daisy. Poor boy meets rich girl and they fall madly in love.”

Her body seemed as the racing stripes on a sportscar. If there were a Vitruvian Woman, sleek and athletic, it would be she. The young woman crossed one ankle over another and pendulated her torso metronomically. She looked Juan over, up and down, from top to bottom, and had a happy smirk like ladies window shopping and trying to convince themselves they can afford it.

“Are you poor?”

“I’m sorry, I think that’s a personal question.”

“You are poor, aren’t you? It’s okay to be poor.”

“I, I was raised in a quite wealthy home. I went to Cambridge and my family paid it all.”

“But you’re poor now.”

Juan exhaled fully from a gawped mouth, but caught himself with a cough or else he felt like he might regurgitate. He leaned away with the initiation of walking away, but before he could step, he looked back at this young woman, and she smiled at him, so he just shifted his feet about.

“I don’t want an Edgar or a Tom. I want my Heathcliffe, my Gatsby. I want my Florentino. And he doesn’t have to be rich. Poor people are nicer, or at least, people who at some time in their life have been poor.”

Juan did not know how to reply. He was poor, but felt odd owning up to it, as if he were bragging about it. He had never seen anybody flaunt their poverty. Another girl, and America blond, came around the back of Juan and up to the young woman and hugged her.

“Hey, Mariposa. You look nice. Love that dress.”

“Oh, thanks. You look good, too.”

This young woman, named Mariposa, spoke in English to the American blond. To Juan it seemed more than just a different language, but almost a native voice. Juan began to wonder if she were Spanish. After all, he never asked her where she came from and just assumed by her looks they came from the same country. He turned and took one step away when he felt someone grab his arm. He turned back and it was the blond.

“Who’s your friend?”

Mariposa opened her mouth, not to speak, but with the unintentional gesture of shock, that she did not know the name of her new Florentino. Juan put out his hand and shook hands with the blond.

“My name is Juan.”

He said it slowly, almost like he translated each work just as he said it. He pivoted and walked away, entering the church building as quickly as he could. As Juan climbed the three short steps to the broad porch before the front entrance, Mariposa closed her book.

“I’m going to marry that man.”

Juan went into one of the many adult classes, intentionally avoiding the college class and Mariposa. After class he climbed the lobby stairs and sat in the balcony. He became so distracted, he could hardly worship, and during the sermon he only thought about where else he could worship beginning next Sunday, and how he needed a ride with someone since nothing else stood in walking distance.

After services Juan descended the stairs and saw his advisor and committeehead, Dr. Enchiridion, the only other person he spoke to that morning.

“Juan, me and my wife are having several students over to our house for lunch and you’re invited.”

“I don’t have a car.”

“I already got you a ride.”

As he said these words, Juan could almost see he feather sticking out from his feline mouth. Juan turned around, although no one tapped him on the shoulder or called out his name. Behind him stood Mariposa.

“I’m your ride!”

“Great. Wonderful. Well, let’s gather everyone else you’re taking and let’s go.”

“You’re the only one I’m taking.”

Dr. Enchiridion smacked Juan firmly on the shoulder much like an athlete would a teammate.

“Take your time, kids.”

Juan didn’t like being called a kid, especially since he was probably closer in age to Dr. Enchiridion than Mariposa. Juan and Mariposa went to her car, the same one she leaned against while reading Marquez, and drove away to Dr. Enchiridion’s house.

In Spanish, Mariposa said, “So you already been to Cambridge, right? So you must be a graduate student. So what you studying?”

“I can’t do what you want me to do?”


“I not,” and then in English, “not available.”

“Not available for what?”

“Not available for the kind of romantic relationship I think you want.”

“You think I’m interested in you?”

“Look, it doesn’t matter if you say you are or are not interested. The point is, I’m still unavailable.”

Mariposa nodded, and said, “So you’ve got a girlfriend?”

“It’s complicated.”      

“Honey, its always complicated. What, does she live in Spain? In Madrid? Or does she come from London?”

“I, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Yes you do, you brought it up. So what’s her name? At least tell me that.”

“I don’t want to.”

“At least let me know who I’m losing you to. What’s her name?”

“Jacqueline Du Pre.”

“Oh, she has a name just like that cellist.”

“She is the cellist.”

“She also plays cello?”

“No, her name is Jacqueline Du Pre, the famous concert cellist.”

“But she’s been dead for about twenty years.”

“I don’t care. I’m still in love with her.”

“And she was married before she died. You know that, don’t you?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

They drove in silence through the next two residential stop signs. Juan sniffed and wiped his nose on the back of his hand.

“Are you crying?”

“No, I am not crying.”

“Sounded like you were crying to me.”

“Well, I wasn’t.”

“So how did you meet her?”

“I saw her perform in London when I was about twelve.”

“So let me get this straight. You are emotionally unavailable for any romantic relationship because you are in love with a dead woman you saw once twenty years when you were twelve and she was married at the time. Did I get that right?”

“When you say it like that, it sounds silly.”

“That’s because it is silly!”

Mariposa tuned down the street that Dr. Enchiridion lived on. She wore a coy grin as she turned to look at Juan, who sat sulking like an eight-year-old being punished by having his favorite toy taken away.

“Would I have a chance if I told you I played viola for several years?”

“Now you are being cruel.”

“But you make it so easy.”

“I wish I had never spoken to you.”

Mariposa hummed a tune, a classical piece of music.

“Dah-ah-ah, da da da dum. Dah-ah-ah, da da da dum.”

“What is that? I think I know that tune.”

“Piece by Schubert called Death and the Maiden.”

“You are cruel. Stop the car. I no longer want to eat lunch with you. I want out.”

“Take it easy, Juan, we’re almost there.”

“I don’t care. Take me home.”

“I’ll take you home after lunch.”

“Then I’ll walk. I don’t want to have anything to do with you. You are cruel.”

At a stop sign, Mariposa stopped with deliberation, not just to see the traffic.

“I’m sorry if I upset you. Please forgive me. I was just having fun, but I went too far. I don’t want you mad at me. I’m glad you came up to me. Now let’s have lunch.”

Juan said nothing, but tried to figure out if he would have lunch at Dr. Enchiridion’s or walk home. Mariposa parked alongside the curb near their destination. Juan opened his cardoor, but Mariposa reached across, leaning as far over as she could, and closed his door. She lay sprawled across his lap, and Juan did the best he could to pull back, but there was no retreat possible there in a car seat. Mariposa sat up and grabbed Juan by the ears, but gently. She pulled him in to herself and kissed him as hard as he had even been kissed before. He soon forgot about London and the Trout performance and contented in the glorious present.

Someone knocked on Mariposa’s window, and the kiss broke off. Both looked out to see Dr. Enchiridion. Mariposa rolled down her window.

“We’re about ready to start.”

“So were we,” mumbled Mariposa to Juan.

 During lunch, Juana and Mariposa sat beside each other, but said nothing to each other, always engaging other students and their hosts. Still, every time Mariposa picked up a fork and fidgeted with her napkin she managed to bump into Juan’s arm, and she constantly shifted her weight in the chair, which gave her occasion to knock knees with Juan.

As many other students stayed and talked at Dr. Enchiridion’s house, Juan and Mariposa were the first to leave.

“I’ll answer the question you want answered, even though you never asked. I am Spanish. Born and raised in Barcelona.”

“That’s not the question. What’s your time?”

Mariposa pointed to the chock on the dashboard.

“It’s almost 2:00, see?”

“No, what’s your time in the 100 metres? I’m guessing you ran track in school. You might even be on the track team here.”

“Good guess. My best time is 12.12. Ran with Spain in ’88 Olympics.”

“That’s great. Are you going to run in ’92?”

“No, I’d have to leave and go back to train, and right now I don’t want to leave for anything.”

Mariposa pulled into the gravel driveway of Juan’s crackerbox rental.

“See? I’m poor, just like you want.”


Mariposa ran track for three years excelling at 440-hurdles and 880 relay where she anchored her team. Juan traveled to every meet and cheered his beloved. His poverty would not allow him to travel at his own expense, so be joined the track team as manager, which also helped it that it paid modestly.

The additional drain on his time meant it took Juan three years to finish his graduate degree in Bible. When Mariposa was not in training, she helped Juan study. Her scholastic workload suffered from this. She ended up taking the bare minimum of hours to qualify for a track scholarship and opting for the easiest of classes at that. She never declared a major, even in her third year.

Mariposa decided long before she began her college career that she wished not to graduate as long as she could get a husband, which she found even before her first day of classes. Not only did she want to leave school as somebody’s wife, but a preacher’s wife in particular, and if she were principally fortunate, he would also be a missionary.

Mariposa was indeed principally fortunate because it was Juan’s plans all along to work in the mission fields. So after three years, Juan and Mariposa left Texas and flew to Barcelona for their wedding. There Juan met Mariposa’s family for the first time. He was unsettled to find them to be quite wealthy, although Mariposa’s father, Cardinale, was a fine Christian gentleman.

The wedding was fine and formal, and no one but the wedded couple knew why they played a recording of Death and the Maiden for their egressional. The reception was in a rented hall that resembled a fancy dinner more than anything. It was the quietest wedding reception Juan had ever been to.

It was their plans to fly from Barcelona to Nairobi to begin their honeymoon, and from there take a month-long cruise of the Indian Ocean. Afterwards they would begin their new work in the mountains of Tanzania. Juan was able to make the proper connections while in school so that he could be appointed to take charge of an existing mission site in Chimala. Not only was there an exiting congregation where he could preach, but there was also a charity hospital and school to train preachers both of which he would oversee.

After the reception, Juan and Mariposa left to head out to the El Prat airport, and from there fly to Nairobi. As they departed the hall, Juan shook Cardinale’s hand, who wished the new couple all of God’s favor. After Juan accepting his blessing, he started for the waiting taxicab and Mariposa said her goodbyes to her family. Cardinale pulled his daughter in closely and said, “You could have done much better,” and Juan overheard.

A surly Juan brooded throughout the cabride and subsequent flight. Mariposa could only raise his spirit on occasion by a kiss on the cheek or a well placed wink and smile. She assumed he didn’t care for flying, so she said nothing about his low-burning aggression.

The Tierras flew the night and landed midmorning at Jomo Kenyatta. The couple went straightway to the CrownPlaza hotel to check in. After taking lunch in the hotel restaurant, Juan complained that he needed a nap. So as he slept, Mariposa enjoyed time in and by the pool. When she returned, Juan was getting dressed for dinner. He said nothing as she went immediately to the shower, and only chided her to hurry and dress after she got out.

The couple planned to go to the Carnivore restaurant for dinner. This was the one thing Juan greatly anticipated ever since he first heard of it. When the taxi made the turn onto Latema and Juan could see their destination, his eyes brightened. He forgot the slight by his father-in-law and anticipated a fare he could never even have dreamed of.

As its name implies, the Carnivore serves plenty of meat. There is no menu. Servers come by with several stakes on long wooden skewers, each with the meat of different indigenant animals. One came by and said, “Would you like some emu?” and another said, “Would you care for some zebra?” This is how the meal went and both Juan and Mariposa enjoyed themselves, both their dinners and each other’s company cheered their most inward souls. After both had eaten abundantly and chatted clean-heartedly, Juan began looking about the restaurant. When another server came by and offered them ibex, Juan turned his chair to face the server.

“Do you have any more wildebeest?”

“Samahani, Jambo. We’ve had none all week. Ibex, Memse?”

Juan paid and rose to leave in a hurry, his foul mood resurrected and fortified. Only back in the hotel room that night could Mariposa distract Juan enough to be pleasant and husbandly. The next morning they took breakfast in their rooms before checking out and heading for the train station, where they would take rail to Dar El Salaam, and from thence their Indian cruise would set sail. As the morning moved along he forgot his affability from the night before, although he had not fully recalled his malice from the prior day.

The train was almost twenty minutes late in arriving, and consequently, over ten minutes late in departing. Juan grumbled the entire half hour. The train departed for the coast, and soon the third world urbanopolis vanished into the free Creation of open spaces saturated with tallgrass and punctuated with flat trees. All sorts of wildlife swam in the ocean of the Serengeti, most in school-like herds but a few sole predators moved alone.

“Look at all those animals. It’s hard to think that not a one of them will die of old age,” said Mariposa.

“How do you mean?”

“Everything out there will die by being eaten, and not entirely at the Carnivore.”

“Including the tourists. I’m about to be eaten alive by these pesky bugs. Probably get malaria before this is all over.”

“I got some bug repellant in my purse. You should have asked for it.”

“And you should have offered it.”

“I just did.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t know what you’re on about, but you don’t have to take it out on me.”

“Who should I take it out on? The waiter? Your father?”

“Leave my father out of this. He’s never done anything to you.”

Juan coughed out a clumsy harrumph and sat silently watching the dangerous world pass by.

“It’s hot in here.”

Mariposa toyed with Juan’s hair.

“I’ve been hot since I got off the plane.”

“It’s Africa.”

“This train is hot. Have they got heaters turned on?”

Juan turned around and struggled to open the window, but it would not budge.

“Figures. Broken like everything else on this train.”

“You need some lunch. Come on. Let’s go to the dining car and get something to eat.”

Juan and Mariposa headed for the dining car, all the while she flirted with his collar. They took a seat on the aft side of the dining car and looked over the menu.

“I wonder if they have any wildebeest.”

“I doubt they’ll have that.”

“No, of course they wouldn’t. Just like that stupid restaurant. What, did all the lions eat them?”

“They have trout.”

Juan glanced up at his smirking wife, and then stared back at the bill of fare.

“I’d choke on the bones, for sure.”

“I’m just going to have a salad.”

Juan dropped his menu and stared at Mariposa.

“No, you are not! Salads are bad luck. Everybody knows that.”

“Get out of here with that.”

“It’s like snow in May. Bad sign.”

“Yeah, especially if you’re trying to steal horses and blow up a bridge.”

The train bell clanged as they entered a tunnel, and Mariposa snickered. When they emerged back into the open air, Juan glared at Mariposa.

“It tolls for thee,” mumbled Mariposa.

The waiter approached and Juan ordered a chicken curry while Mariposa asked for the salad as threatened.

“Why curry? We’ll be having plenty of that on the cruise.”

“We won’t make it on the cruise.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Things are not going well enough for us to make it on the cruise.”

“What has happened that is so bad? No wildebeest at the Carnivore? I got news for you, we will probably get sick of eating wildebeest before it’s all said and done. Are you still complaining about the heat? Maybe you should have got a salad, that’ll cool you down.”

“No, none of that’s it.”

“Then what’s going on? You can tell me, I’m your wife.”

“And that’s the problem.”


“No, that’s not the problem, that’s not the problem. The problem is that I’m your husband.”

And who thinks that’s a problem?”

“Your father.”

Mariposa seemed to wilt and Juan began sweating again from a different kind of heat. Mariposa looked down.

“You don’t understand. I could have married the heir to the richest man alive and my father would have thought that I could have done better. It’s not you, it’s just that I’m daddy’s little girl and always will be. In fact, it got to be too much. That’s why I left Spain. And that’s why I needed a track scholarship. My dad let me bring my car and always sent me money, as you know, but he didn’t approve of me coming to America. Marrying you was just more proof that I made the right decision, and daddy couldn’t handle that. He has nothing against you. I think he really likes you, but you took his little girl away once and for all.”

“You’re going to make me cry.”

“Juan, no one thinks you’re not good enough for me. And even if someone did, the only opinion that matters is mine. And I think I am the luckiest girl in the world to be with you.”

The waiter arrived with their food. He set the dished down and offered to refill their water glasses. As he refilled Juan’s, a rumble jostled the car, and the waiter spilt the water on the table. After several apologies and as many pardons the waiter went to find out what the noise was, offering it might have been something in the engine room. Juan’s concerns turned back to his bride, with whom he was finally and thoroughly pleased. He took a big bite of curry, which was hot, and he coughed and sputtered from the seasoning.

“I think I know what that noise was. It came form the kitchen. The curry exploded.”

He smiled and took another bite, this one smaller, but one that still made him cough to consume it.

“I’m glad you’re feeling better. Let’s just enjoy our lunch and the rest of the train ride and we’ll be in Dar El Salaam in no time.”

“I’m glad I spoke to you in the church parkinglot.”

“I am too. You are my Florentino and I’m your little Fermina.”

“Correction. You are my Du Pre.”        

“Does that make you my Barenboim?”

“Only if you want to be married to Daniel Barenboim.”

“I do, as long as I have to be Jacqueline Du Pre.”

The waiter returned and said the commotion was not from the engine room and that he does not know what it was.

Juan shrugged, and said, “I don’t care anymore.”

The train veered left around a large hill, and just as it did, the train conductor threw on the emergency brakes. Everyone was tossed about. Diners were thrown into the aisleway and waiters fell into their dining patrons. Shrieks could be heard from the front of the train, which spilled back in a ripple affect. As the dining car cleared the hill everyone there could see what caused the rumble, as well as why the breaks were applied and why people screamed. Terrorists had blown a bridge that covered a small gorge. The train had mighty speed to overcome in order to stop in time. The inertia was too great, and the train’s momentum sent the line over the once bridge.

Once stopped on the gorge floor, Juan noticed that Mariposa’s eyes were closed. He laid on top of her and something pinned him down in his lower back. He could not tell if she were dead or merely unconscious. There were abundant cries and moans, but no conversation, and Juan could tell that no one was free from injury enough to speak.

The bomb blew the middle of the bridge, but only weakened the trusses and supports on each side. When the train went over the end, it weakened it further, so that it too plummeted to the gorge floor, along with many rocks of countless sizes. The oncoming roar ended in darkness. Juan did not know if he would perish from injuries or suffocation. He embraced Mariposa’s limp frame and closed his eyes, and he prayed.

“God Almighty, I pray for Mariposa as much as I do myself. Forgive us for all of our trespasses and receive us into your glory.”



Filed under short story

8 responses to ““Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Four: Juan & Mariposa Tierra

  1. thank you so much for your dedication, it makes us readers come to your website everyday. lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email

  2. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Six: Ian & Lilly Doitean | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  3. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Seven: Jack Johnson & The Old Timer | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  4. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Eight: Johnn & Bryony Rivers | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  5. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Eight: John & Bryony Rivers | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  6. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott: Part Nine – Jack Johnson & The Old Timer | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  7. Pingback: “Firmament,” a short story by Neal Abbott: Part Ten – Yvan & Iolanta Nyebov | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  8. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott: Part Eleven – Jack Johnson & The Old Timer | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s