The Swamp (Part Eight)

Hendricks sat back, exhausted and stunned. Coiba. Well, in the back of his mind he had to admit that he had suspected as much all along. Since he had arrived, he had been isolated from most of the other prisoners. The only ones in his area were mentally deficient or so dangerous it was not worth the risk of talking to them. Also, as a gringo, he had learned early on to keep to himself most of the time. Yet he had heard whispered rumors and flat out denials that they were indeed in Coiba.

Now it was true. Yet the government line was that all prisons in Coiba had been shut down since 2004. Human rights groups had protested until the government caved in, albeit reluctantly. For Coiba was the perfect solution in a country as small as Panama. By virtue of being an island, and a big one at that, it offered the type of privacy and maximum security that no facility on the mainland could hope to match.

The facility, known as the Campamento Central, had been immortalized in an old salsa song written by Ruben Blades in the seventies, “El Cazanguero”. But the grim reality of the camp was something no song could ever capture. The brutal guards, bored out of their minds and stuck out there in the middle of nowhere had devised strange and exquisite tortures for the prisoners. One of the favorite ways to punish unruly political dissidents was to hang them upside down from the metal basketball hoops for days at a time, until the hands swelled up and the wrist bones were exposed. Flies would lay eggs in the exposed meat and the maggots would devour the flesh.

Dragging prisoners behind horses, or just taking them out into the jungle and shooting them were commonplace occurrences. Most prisoners, though, went out of their minds with fatigue, pain, and desperation. In the time of the dictator Noriega, all of the food for the entire penal system came from the fields around the Campamento. The prisoners worked these fields from sunup to sundown, in the broiling hot sun, with only one meal per day.

No one had ever escaped, or so it was reputed, though there were conflicting reports of several inmates having made it out only to be recaptured and sent back. Escape was almost impossible. The island was full of muddy, body-sucking swamps, dangerous wild animals, and many, many lethally poisonous serpents. If the crocs didn’t get you first, that is.

And even if you somehow managed to survive and make it to the beach, how were you ever going to get across the ocean pass back to the mainland? Forget swimming, way too far and besides the water was full of aggressive sharks.

Hendricks contemplated all this before he passed out.

He dreamed that he was on a small white lifeboat. The sea was calm around him and he rowed contentedly, listening to the occasional shrill call of a gull or the gentle lapping of the waves against the side of the craft.

Suddenly, he realized with a start that the sky had darkened, with metal gray thunderheads on the not too distant horizon. Lightning shot out of the clouds and the air shook with the roar of the thunder. He felt the waves rising and falling, the spray dousing him with stinging force. Looking around, he saw that he was in the middle of the ocean, with no other ship in sight. The boat tilted and rocked precariously, threatening to capsize with every other wave crash. He looked down into the sea and the saw large, fluid shadows of several sharks that were now circling his lifeboat.

In his dream, Hendricks pulled hard at the oars, his hands bleeding. He grimaced with pain and fear and desperation, the sweat and salt water streaming down into his eyes.

When he looked up again, his wife Celia was in the boat, nursing their young infant son. He smiled but then she looked up at him and he realized that she was bleeding from a wound on her forehead.

“Why did you leave us, baby? Why?” she asked him, handing her son into his waiting arms.

Hendricks looked down and saw that the child he was holding was long dead, the bones sticking through the flesh on the face, empty sockets where the eyes should have been.

To his surprise the baby began wailing, and Hendricks awoke with a start. A strong hand clamped down on his mouth before he could scream.

“Shhhhh. Don’t move.” Luz pushed down on him, then pointed down at his feet. A large brown snake was coiled over his feet, not looking like it had any intention of getting off.

“It is a terciopelos. Very poisonous and very aggressive. Please don’t move or we could both be dead very fast.” She warned.

Luz stood up and pulled out a big machete with a wide handle. Without thinking twice she swung the machete down fast, severing the snake’s head from its body.

Hendricks screamed and lunged back, landing hard on his ass.

Luz picked up the reptile and held it up to measure it. “Wow, this one is at least five foot long. Man, you are so lucky I came along just now. One small movement and, well, you know. Not pretty.”

“Thank you, Luz, thank you.” Was all he could muster.

“Let’s build a fire and we can eat it. Terciopelo is actually very delicious and it has a lot of protein,” she added. “and I brought some matches. That should make it pretty easy,” she laughed.

They sat around and cooked the big snake. Luz had brought two bottles of water and a couple of cans of Imperial beer that she had stolen from her father’s cooler.

She looked at him. "I have some things to tell you. Important things."

to be continued

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valeriebelew 6 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

So was it guess whose coming for dinner, or guess who we're having for dinner. LOL. scary chapter. (: v

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