But the sky lost its light quickly, there on the equator. Then Quito lay glittering in the mountain’s lap, its lights mirrored by the stars. It didn’t seem possible, as Alice stood on the balcony and stared up, that there could be so many stars. As if, were you to pull away the veil of black, all that light would fall.
It was quiet, then, still no one allowed on the streets. But as Alice was gazing up at the sky, in the hills all around, where the modern houses stood, the first of the season’s initiations took place.
Earlier, before curfew, mothers had waited in their cars for the gate to open, for their girls to slip from the cars and run in. Then the girls had played Twister and told ghost stories, and grown hot with sugar and excitement, until the hosting mother came in and told them lights out. In the fuggy air of sleeping bags and breath, after several eruptions of giggling, it gradually became quiet.
But after a time, a set of girls who had only pretended to sleep opened their eyes and looked at each other over the slumbering bodies, as planned. They silently crawled from their sleeping bags toward the girl they had earlier chosen. They drew close, kneeling around her in their nightgowns, and, with eyes intent, one on each side began to unbutton her pajamas: the top button, the second, the third. Stealthily they slid her little flannel top open. Then, with excruciating slowness, they slipped their hands under the elasticized waist and inched her pajama bottoms down. No farther than the thighs, though, it didn’t matter any farther. They drew back and looked.
What concerned them was the state of development. It was just curiosity, nothing more. It was something they needed to know. They studied the smooth chest, the pale nipples, the hairless cleft between slender hips. Each girl looked on privately at the little landscape, making her own crucial comparisons.
When they had seen enough and were satisfied, they looked at one another. Then they gave the girl a tickling squeeze, to signal that she’d passed her ravishment.
“The thing to do,” Candi later told Alice, as the two sat by the tetherball ring with their lunchbags, “is just let them do it. Pretend you’re asleep.”
Candi looked like an owl. She had a heart mouth and round tortoiseshell glasses, and Alice believed her, but still she said, “Why?”
“Because if you don’t let them do it, you’ll be out. But if you do–you’re automatically in.” <. . .>
“The thing to do,” Hal told Rosalind and Alice, “is get to know the right kind of people.”
They were driving out to the hacienda of a contact he’d made, a local, upper-echelon, very good man to know. The hacienda was halfway around Pichincha, and the new convertible flew over rutted, stony roads as Hal steered with one hand, smoke streaming from his nostrils. They drove through fields of sugarcane and pineapple, and through banana plantations, the long ragged leaves and heavy bruised fruit hanging down dense around them. As one set of mountains receded, new mountains appeared; it was like being in a sea, a huge green wave always swelling up beyond the one that had just crashed behind them. All around, the land soared and dipped and buckled, sometimes looking as if huge slabs of it had tilted up, nothing flat anywhere, wild. Once it hailed, tiny balls of ice like pumice bouncing upon their heads, but by the time Hal pulled over to put up the top, they’d gone through. Alice got out and saw that there was a line across the road: on one side it was wet and hailing, while the other side was sunny. They passed crumbling mud huts surrounded by spiky plants and fires; dogs ran out, chickens flapped, people in black hats looked up. Once a horse was grazing so near a fire it was surely feeding on flames.
They stopped to buy pineapples. A brown man in short white pants cut a fruit free with a machete, hacked away the prickly sides, and held out the pale core to Alice. Her chin dripped sweet juice as they drove on.
“Tell me again, I’m sorry, what’s his name?” asked Rosalind when they drove through a cobblestoned village and pulled up to a tall iron gate.
“Cabeza de Vaca. Jorge.”
“Cabeza de Vaca, how could I forget. And it means what I think?”
At the end of a gravel drive lined with trees was an old white colonial house. Saddles hung in a hallway smelling of leather and horse; sheepskins lay on the shining wood floor, over which Rosalind’s high-heeled sandals clattered. She laughed gaily as Señor Cabeza de Vaca kissed her hand.
“Come in, come in, bienvenidos.”
“Terrific place,” said Hal, and whistled through his teeth.
There were pastures for bulls and cows, which stretched part way up the mountain; there were groves of gum trees, and bees for honey, and even a ring for bullfights.
“Some of the Americans like that,” said Señor Cabeza de Vaca. “Yes, they enjoy it, we use just the heifers. A few men in oil, one or two from the embassy. Perhaps you’d like to try, sometime?”
Hal pulled a droll face and said he’d sure as hell watch, while Rosalind laughed and declared that she’d dare it.
They had lunch, tostadas and grilled chicken and something soft wrapped in hot corn husk. Cream sat on Alice’s milk.
“Tell me, Alicia, can you ride?”
“She can sure learn,” said Hal. “Can’t you, Alice? With all those gymnastics and climbing you do.”
“Well then, I have a very nice horse for you.”
A girl named Claudia who worked in the stables led the horse out and helped Alice on. When she had mounted her own, she smiled showily and gestured with her reins and the heels of her boots to demonstrate how things were done. Then she laughed, slapped Alice’s horse, and the two took off.
“Famoso,” she called from behind. “El caballo se llama Famoso.”
Famoso? Formosa? Alice clung to the horse with her legs, with her hands, gripping the horn of the saddle, the coarse mane. The horse cantered along the gravel road out of the hacienda, into the village. Claudia was behind her, then beside her, and then she laughed and dug in her heels, and both horses suddenly galloped. They veered away from the road and into the lush open fields, the hooves now drumming soft earth. Claudia’s horse sprang, and Alice’s own horse tightened and leapt before she had even seen the stream, and for a hanging, silent moment, they flew. Then again they were pounding through grass, just the steady thudding of hooves, and she clung to the horse’s side and mane as it galloped, and the air rushed around her so fast she barely breathed, she seemed to be air itself. They raced over the field, into a wood, back out into the sloping green.
At last they stopped. Alice slid from the sweating horse into the grass, knee-deep and slippery as silk.
“Bien,” said Claudia, pushing back her hair with a dirty hand.
Beside them the horses tore mouthfuls of grass. Alice lay breathless, ecstatic, staring up at the sky.
They returned more slowly. The horses ambled, side by side. As they passed through the alley of trees that lined the drive to the hacienda, Claudia reached up and pulled an avocado from a branch. Alice strained in the stirrups to reach for one, too. The other girl snapped off the stem, poked it through the leathery skin, squeezed, and out came smooth pale paste.
“¿Paraíso, no?” said Claudia, wiping the green from her mouth.
“Hell of a mess,” said Hal as they sped home to be in time for curfew. The air was cool, the sky just beginning to lose light, the fields around them misting and smoking.
“Hell of a mess Velasco’s got himself into with these import taxes, not to mention the expropriations. Can’t imagine what he thinks he’s doing. How can someone be president four times and still be such a fool. Plus he’s not budging on the China vote. And the word is, if he won’t work with us, the hell with him. It’s not only us he’s aggravating but some pretty important people down here. He’ll have to make it up somehow.”
Rosalind’s eyes were shut, one arm hanging out over the door, her hand open to the breeze. “Just smell those gum trees,” she said. “And the jacaranda. Now it’ll really seem like Christmas, when the jacaranda’s in bloom, all blue.”
“But the interesting thing,” Hal went on, “the really interesting thing will be to see exactly how Velasco does it.”
<. . . >