It was a dramatic moment. Cornered between loose ropes and the railing, the insect menaced the crew with his sword, while out of the corner of his eye he tracked the raging sea in which a Kraken, of the “kraken escarabujos” species (specialists in beetle-eating), was lurking. Then, the intrepid stowaway gathered his bravery, raised his multiple arms to the sky and roared, drowning out the sound of the waves crashing against the hull of La Montaña:
Ich bin der Stahlkäfer, der Größte, der Beste! Beachtung! Hör auf meine Worte! (I am the stainless-steel beetle, the biggest, the best! Attention! Listen to my words!)
The crew stopped short: not because a schizophrenic insect was threatening them with a toothpick and a plastic jar cap, nor because he spoke in German. It was because upon hearing their mother language after so many years of hearing only tropical, coastal Spanish, they were transported back to their homeland as if by a spell.
Gabriela would say later that the insect’s German was closer to that of an Iranian immigrant than that of Goethe’s Faust, but the captain defended the stowaway, insisting that his German was perfectly intelligible. And, since where the captain is in charge Gabriela is not, Ete and Karl approved, and Edwin, even though he only understood the word “cumbia,” agreed. What follows is the insect’s story translated from the German:
“The indecisiveness of my attackers gave me time to rethink my defensive strategy, repair my armor (because it’s one thing to die in an unequal fight, and another to do so in rags), and launch my counteroffensive: a story…
It was several moons ago, in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast. Those who live and struggle there had set a new challenge for themselves, but at that time they were living under a cloud of worry and discouragement because they lacked a vehicle for their journey. That was how I, the great, the ineffable, the etcetera, Don Durito of the Lacandón Jungle, A.C. de C.V. de (i)R. (i)L. arrived at their mountains (the abbreviations, as you should all know, stand for “Knight Errant of Versatile Cavalry and Unlimited Responsibility”)[i]. As soon as word of my arrival got out, a throng of women of all ages, from teenagers to the elderly, came running to greet me. But I remained firm and did not succumb to vanity. I proceeded towards the quarters of the individual in charge of the as-yet unsuccessful mission. For a moment I was baffled: the impertinent nose of he who checked and re-checked the calculations of the cost of the punitive expedition against Europe reminded me of the captain who later became known as SupMarcos, whom I spent years teaching and training with my wisdom. But no: although his appearance is similar, he who calls himself SupGaleano still has much to learn from me, the greatest of the knights errant.
In short, they needed a vessel. When I offered my ship, the aforementioned Sup sarcastically responded: “But it only fits one person, and they would have to be very small, and it’s….a sardine tin!” in reference to my frigate, whose name, “Soak your beard[ii]”, adorns its port side at the height of the prow. I chose to ignore such impertinence, and, walking through the crowd of people all longing for a passing glance from me, or a few words at least, I made my way to “No Name” Island, discovered by your faithful narrator in 1999. And at the top of its leafy lookout, I patiently awaited the dawn.
Then I cursed to hell, I convoked goddesses from all latitudes and called the most powerful among them: the scarlet witch, she who is despised by the other gods and goddesses, given as they are to sexist boasting and drama; she who is different from the other goddesses, obsessed as they are with the false beauty of makeup and cosmetics; she, the scarlet witch, the greatest witch: Oh, die scharlachrote Hexe! Oh, die ältere Hexe!
Confident that the chances of those strange beings who call themselves Zapatistas managing to get ahold of a worthy vessel were virtually nil, I knew that only the most powerful of the powerful magicians would be able to save them from this predicament and keep their word. Therefore, I called the greatest witch, she of burgundy robes, who has the power to alter the probability of future events. She crunched the numbers and concluded that, in effect, the probability that they would manage to get a ship were almost zero. She added:
“But I cannot do anything without a petition. And not just any petition: it must be made by a Titan, a grandiose and magnanimous being who places himself at the service of those in need of a magical event.”
“And who better than yours truly?” I bellowed. The lady of the carmen cloak raised her hand to demand silence. “That’s not all,” she whispered. “I require that the Titan risk his life, his fortune and his reputation on the odyssey that those beings intend to carry out. That is, he must accompany them with encouragement and kindness, and together with them, though not at their side, he must confront challenges and suffering. That is, he must be there and not be there.”
I agreed, as my only fortune are my heroic acts, I risk my life just by existing and, well, my reputation resides in the basements of the world.
The sisterly witch then did what one does in these cases: she booted up her computer, connected to a server in Germany, typed I don’t know what magic spell, modified a graphic indicating the probabilities, raising the percentage from almost zero to 99.9%, typed again and a buzz from her printer betrayed the paper that was to come out of it. Not before appreciating the modernization that has taken place in the scarlet witches’ guild, I took the sheet. One sentence was printed on it:
“If you are in fact a steel titan, find your partner, for on that the mission depends.”
What did that mean? Where could I find someone or something, let’s not say similar, but even remotely close to my grandeur? There aren’t many titans out there. In fact, according to the Wikipedia below and to the left, I am the only one alive. “Steel,” it said. A man of steel? Doubtful; I don’t think the scarlet witch would have recommended a man. So it must be a female or woman of steel.
I looked for a long time. I traversed from Patagonia to distant Siberia. I crossed paths with the dignified Mapuche, I screamed with bloodied Colombia, I crossed pained but persistent Palestine, I passed through seas stained with the dark sorrow of migrants, and I retraced my own steps, believing, erroneously, that I had failed in my mission.
But, upon disembarking in the geography called Mexico, something caught my attention. A boat covered with patches and repairs floated dejectedly on the turquoise waters. I could make out the word “Stahlratte” on its side. Since I had found the scarlet witch in the Germany of below and this word means “steel rat” in German, I decided to try my luck. I waited, with knowing patience, until night fell and shadows covered the solitary boat. I climbed skillfully on the ship’s bow skirting the starboard side and heading toward the command center of the ship. There, a man was cursing in German with expletives that would scandalize Hell itself: something about the sorrow of having to leave the ocean and its adventures behind. I knew then that the ship was in its final days and that its captain and crew had nightmares about life on solid ground. Scarlet witches around the world were conspiring for my favor and fortune. But it all depended on me, the stainless-steel beetle, the greatest of the knights errant, etcetera, to find the long-sought partner. I waited for the captain to stop his moaning and cursing. When he fell silent, a sob caught in his throat, I climbed up the ship’s wheel, faced him, and said, “I am Don Durito, who are you?” He didn’t hesitate: “I’m the captain, you stowaway!” he answered waving a newspaper or a magazine in my direction, threatening to crush my slender and beautiful figure. It was then that, with a powerful voice, I introduced myself. The captain paused and fell silent, putting down the newspaper or magazine.
A brief conversation was sufficient to establish that both of us were people of the world, adventurers by vocation and choice, ready to confront any challenge no matter how great or terrible.
Now with mutual trust, I told him the story of an ongoing odyssey, one that would later come to fill the annals of history, the most dangerous and unappreciated duty: the struggle for life.
I went into great detail, telling him about a boat built in the middle of the mountains with no more water than the rain to give it vocation and purpose. I told him about the people who had decided to embrace such an audacious task, about legends of a mountain that refused to shackle its feet to the ground, and about Mayan myths and legends in the voice of their originary peoples.
The captain lit a cigarette and offered me one but I declined, taking out my pipe. We shared a light and the smoke of the tobacco.
The captain stayed silent, and after a few puffs said something like, “What an honor it would be to join such a noble and absurd cause.” He continued, “I don’t have a crew right now since we’ve already retired, but I am sure that there are women and men who will join with just the allure of this story. Go to your people and tell them that they can count on us, humans and vessel alike.”
Having finished my story, I turned towards those who had threatened to throw me overboard. “And that is how you mere mortals embarked on this adventure. Thus, leave me in peace and return to your work so that I can assure that the Kraken leaves our house and journey in peace. For this purpose I have called on some fish friends who will keep him away.”
And boom, in that moment someone on the deck screamed, “Dolphins!” and everyone went up on the deck equipped with cameras, cellphones or merely their astonished eyes.
In the confusion, Durito, the greatest of the Titans, the only hero who rises to the level of art, the accomplice of wizards and witches, slipped away and climbed back up to his perch, this time in the crow’s nest. From there he sang songs that I swear were answered by the dolphins who, between the waves and seaweed, danced for life.
Later, during dinner, the captain confirmed the little bug’s story, and from that moment on he ceased to be “the little bug” and is now called “Durito Stahlkäfer” or “Durito, the Steel Beetle.”
“One more stripe on the tiger” the late SupMarcos would have said, from three meters under the deck, err, I mean, underground.
Now Gabriela corrects Stahlkäfer’s German pronunciation with camaraderie. From Ete’s shoulder, Durito climbs to the top of the tallest mast. He accompanies Carl at the ship’s wheel and entertains him with terrible and marvelous stories. On Edwin’s head, he directs the unfurling and lowering of the sails. And in the hours before dawn, he talks and smokes with Captain Ludwig.
And when the ocean rages and the wind lifts its lustful sail, Stahlkäfer, shining example of knight-errantry, entertains the 421st Squadron with incredible tales, including the absurd story of a mountain that become a boat in the struggle for life.
Note: The video of the dolphins summoned by Stahlkäfer was taken by Lupita because the support team of the Sixth Commission, charged with that mission, was busy…vomiting. Yes I know, embarrassing isn’t it? Now the 421st Squadron has the mission of supporting the support team. And we still have to cross the Atlantic (sigh).
[i] A play on the Spanish equivalent of abbreviations that follow the name of a corporation, like Inc., Corp., and LLC, which literally mean “Anonymous Corporation, Variable Capital, Limited Responsibility (Liability).”
[ii] This common saying, originally “Soak your hedgerows” rather than “Soak your beard”, began as the longer phrase, “When you see your neighbor’s hedgerows burn, soak your own,” and comes from a time centuries ago when highly flammable materials such as stick piles and straw bales were used to mark property lines. It is a warning to the listener that when a misfortune befalls one’s neighbor, or indeed, when we are faced with a bad situation that we ourselves have faced before, it is important to take precautions so as not to repeat the same bad outcome. See https://cvc.cervantes.es/lengua/refranero/ficha.aspx?Par=58407&Lng=0
Music: “The Witch” from Veracruz, interpreted by Sones de México Ensemble, with Billy Branche. Images: part of the crossing of La Montaña, arrival and landing at Cienfuegos, Cuba, and a meeting of the 421st Squadron to look at the Enlace Zapatista page.