This story initially appeared in Wordstock Ten Anthology 2009.
The sunlight glared off Eduardo’s shades as he bounded toward the beach on his four-wheeler. Usually he didn’t kick up such big puffs of dust on the road, even when the surf report lured him out of bed before dawn; today he wore his bandana like a mask over his nose and mouth so that he wouldn’t choke.
A rumor had run rampant through the bars in Santa Teresa the night before, sudden as the surge of banditos who had been robbing tourists and surfers up and down the Nicoya Peninsula all season. Some bad-ass surfer had appeared out of nowhere, and nobody knew where he came from or even his name. This was certainly nothing new, and Eduardo had pushed back his chair and was ready to call it a night when someone told the story of the near-drowning in Malpais that morning. Few but the best locals were even able to paddle out to catch the breaks. A gringo on a rented board had been pulled out of the soup by the stranger. Because of the rough conditions, hardly anyone witnessed what happened next. But those who dropped their boards under the palms and rushed over to the spot where the limp gringo lay still swore that the surfer who carried him to shore leaned over, cupped his hands over the gringo’s mouth and sucked in a giant, slow, rasping breath. Then the stranger turned and spewed a bucket’s worth of salt water back into the surf.
Now, underneath the same coco palms on same stretch of beach in Malpais, Eduardo rolled up and powered off the four-wheeler. A bevy of identical sand-splattered ATVs rested there. The morning surf, just as the daily report predicted, was ripping clean and well overhead. But he spotted none of his friends out on the water; instead, the dozen or so locals with boards hung back near the trees, heads bent together in conversation. Some of them just studied the surf in silence. Eduardo approached his group of friends and asked if someone had poisoned the water overnight.
But nobody cracked a smile. ‘None of us can get out,’ said his friend Don, a tall, crusty California surfer. ‘Except him.’ Don pointed to the figure shredding the big break farthest from the beach.
Eduardo laughed and said that was impossible. Conditions were smooth as glass and better than they’d seen in a week. ‘The stranger’s good, mai, you would have to be blind to not see that after just two minutes of watching the guy,’ he said. But his friends were allowing themselves to fall under some kind of spell. Eduardo tied his leash to his ankle and charged for the water.
He threw himself onto his board and paddled toward the rising waves. After a minute he looked back and saw that he hadn’t moved more than six feet. He jumped off his board into the knee-deep water, but the undertow, usually like quicksand underneath his feet, didn’t exist. The Pacific was as gentle as a lake.
He tried again to get out. Waves splashed in his face, and he was even able to duck-dive under a large one speeding toward him, but his friends were right. Even though he was paddling hard and the board seemed to be gliding along, he was stuck on shore as if the nose kept bumping smack into an invisible undersea wall.
At last, out of breath and sputtering salt water and frustration, he surrendered and trudged up the beach.
He expected his friends to laugh as he had at them, but they just regarded him in silence. He joined them in the beating sun, and they watched the stranger dropping down the faces of waves like huge, rolling hillsides. Eduardo watched until his eyes hurt and his skin was hot and dry.
Who was this stranger? The locals wanted to know. He’d been out there since dawn, when was he going to come in? Two dogs trotted on the beach, chasing blue crabs back into holes, and every so often the dogs paused with their ears and tails lifted and gazed at the waves as if waiting for the mysterious surfer to emerge. When he finally paddled in, the dogs ran up to either side of him and licked the palms of his hands. Some of the local surfers hung back, but others, including Eduardo, strolled up to meet the man.
They asked him where he’d come from, and he said Puerto Viejo. But later one of the pro-circuit riders who had grown up in Puerto Viejo said he had never seen this guy before, at Salsa Brava or anywhere else on the east coast. Eduardo wasn’t a pro, but in ten years he’d surfed Costa Rica from Witch’s Rock to down below Dominical, almost to the Panamanian border. He had never seen this surfer, or heard of him. Up close, the stranger exuded a sweet, thick scent like almonds and coconuts, and when he lifted his hands to his dreadlocks and flung them away from his face, old scars ran down to his wrists. It was impossible to tell his age—his dreadlocks blazed black as the night sky without a single grey hair, and his skin refused to wrinkle beyond the crease of his eyes squinting in the sunlight. But his eyes were blue, the color of the sky and the sea; he seemed to come from the sea.
Eduardo asked him who he was, but only received the smallest of smiles. Eduardo repeated his question but this time asked his name. ‘Jesus,’ the man said.
‘Are you a Rasta, mai?’ someone called out.
‘What’s that?’ Jesus answered, squeezing the salt water from his dreadlock mane.
The surfers exchanged glances and mumblings with one another, told Jesus con mucho gusto, and praised him for his skills on such powerful surf. Then they headed back up the beach to their parked ATVs, leaving Jesus with his dogs circling and playing. A few of the locals grabbed their boards and hit the waves, this time cutting up and down the faces like knives through guava jelly.
But Eduardo perched atop his four-wheeler and watched Jesus hurling coconuts into the water and the dogs chasing after them. The dogs retrieved the hairy husks and trotted up the sand. They repeated the ritual and piled them at their master’s feet, again and again.
By that evening, the odd phenomenon of the local boys being held out of the water seemingly by an unknown and otherworldly force connected with the Rasta Jesus reached the doorways and ears of the larger community. Everyone knew surfers smoked their share of marijuana; the impossibility of such an occurrence as told by surfers was trumped by the story of the Rastafarian stranger saving the gringo from drowning. People kept an eye out for the blue-eyed black man with hair like ropes.
But the Rasta Jesus, as he came to be known whether that was his name or not, rarely left the sand. At night he camped down the beach, far away from the tiki-lit resorts, his campfire of driftwood a glowing speck near the place where the jungle waters spilled to the sea, where the crocodiles swam out and hovered off the coast. Eduardo guessed that he must live off fish and fruit. At dawn, the Rasta cut across the golden waves like a warrior, his vine-like mane whipping behind him.
Like the Rasta Jesus, Eduardo had landed in Malpais not long ago. A few months before, he’d suffered a nasty break-up with a half-gringa, half-Tica beach masseuse whom he’d chased from his hometown of Tamarindo down to Manuel Antonio and back again. Tired, he’d settled in between, here in the little dustbowl village of Malpais. The name itself meant ‘bad country,’ although he didn’t consider the barreling surf, miles of empty coastline, and endless simmering days where not much stirred except the flies too much to bear—at least not yet. But unlike the rest of the surfers, Eduardo wondered not so much where the Rasta Jesus came from, but how he also had ended up in Malpais. Was the Rasta Jesus also caught in-between, fleeing the condo high-rises that towered over Tamarindo and the crowded tourist beaches of Manuel Antonio? Had he tired of grappling with love like a stubborn snapper at the end of a fishing line, and at last given in to the surf? Eduardo wanted to know.
The Tica ladies who attended mass every Sunday wondered if the Rasta really might be Jesus Christ, returned to this world at last. But if he was Jesus, why had he come here, to the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, nearly the ends of the earth? At the falafel joint, the surfers discussed this during the long evening hours, barefoot and over dusty beers.
‘Isn’t Jesus supposed to show up in a blaze of glory, with angels blowing trumpets and things?’ Don exclaimed.
‘But he’s a surfer,’ Eduardo said. ‘How is he different from any of us, come here to surf?’
‘Listen, mai,’ said one of the guys who’d witnessed the drowning incident. ‘Because if he’s Jesus, he’s supposed to be saving the world. And he’s surfing.’
Eduardo didn’t answer. He sank into the surroundings and let the sounds wash over him: the back and forth music of the Israelis who owned the place speaking Hebrew sprinkled with Spanish, the reggatone tune bouncing from a radio in the corner, the silence of an iguana as it zig-zagged up a tree. His attention was called back to the Israelis leaning forward in their chairs, young men like most of the surfers but with goatees and eyes on business. A bunch of them had moved here from Tel Aviv, tired of watching their friends get blown up in cafes, and so they set up a couple of little bungalow hotels and storefronts along the beach. Why not come here? Eduardo thought. Most people seemed to think that bigger places had more significance. He pictured the Rasta Jesus cooking his fish over his campfire on the beach and whistling to his dogs, an anchor of calm in the sand.
The banditos resurfaced on the road to the north. Four surfers, two Ticos and two gringos, had their van, boards and wallets stripped from them at gunpoint. The banditos set up roadblocks and robbed tourists; locals worried they were next. The skeleton police force in the remote parts of the peninsula could do nothing against such teams of criminals with automatic weapons that rivaled their own. Up near Tamarindo, two ornithologists from Stanford University were studying a nest of rare spotted owls in the middle of the night. Residents mistook the strangers for banditos, and the mob nearly beat the two scientists to death.
Around this time, the Rasta Jesus wandered into town more often. He carved and painted masks out of coco shells and hawked them to tourists, and he cooked and washed dishes here and there. He hung out at the bars but never touched a beer, only coconut milk. He didn’t attend mass or the Shabbat services. Mostly he surfed. The strange phenomenon of the lock-out never happened again, and most of the surfers liked and respected Jesus, even if he spoke little. He surfed the biggest waves, and he could always paddle out no matter how rough the conditions.
One day, Eduardo returned home from a lunch of falafels and lemonade to discover his entire bungalow had been cleaned out of valuables. He didn’t care about the battered television or the six-months-new refrigerator, but the loss of his three surfboards broke his heart. He roared into town on his four-wheeler, dust swirling into his mouth and biting his eyes, but he didn’t stop until he reached the falafel stand. His friends had scattered; no other surfers were hanging out except for Rasta Jesus, drinking his coconut milk and shoveling a pita square of hummus into his mouth. The Israelis were gathered around the end of the table, jabbering in Hebrew. Eduardo started to pull up a chair next to Rasta Jesus, but stopped to listen. This quiet surfer who almost never spoke at all had jumped into the conversation, delivering in perfect Hebrew.
But Rasta Jesus had spotted Eduardo and motioned for him to sit down. ‘What do you want?’ he asked Eduardo, in Spanish.
‘You speak Hebrew?’ Eduardo asked. The Israelis paused and looked at him with their goatees upturned at the corners.
‘I speak Spanish, English, Hebrew, yes,’ Rasta Jesus replied. ‘You listen, you learn everything around you. Now something has happened to you, and you don’t have to tell me what exactly. But you want me to help you?’
Eduardo said nothing. It was the most he’d ever heard Rasta Jesus speak.
‘Tacere est consentire,’ Jesus said. ‘May I borrow your ATV?’
Frozen-faced, Eduardo slid over his keys. Rasta Jesus sprang up, dreadlocks swinging, climbed aboard the four-wheeler and left Eduardo and the chuckling Israelis behind in a swarm of dust.
Eduardo crept to the middle of the road and stood there with his arms crossed, staring up the bend to the north where the Rasta had disappeared. When Eduardo looked to the men in the falafel café, they only laughed even harder. ‘You just gave your ATV to that crazy Rasta?’ one of them said in Spanish. ‘You can kiss those wheels goodbye,’ he added, and took a sip of his coffee.
‘I thought maybe he was one of you,’ Eduardo said.
The Israelis exchanged raised eyebrows and smirks. ‘Look, some people pick up languages like other people pick up pens,’ the falafel joint owner replied. ‘We have no idea.’
Eduardo wandered away, down to the beach to wait. He lay in one of the hammocks that belonged to a bungalow resort and with the warmth of the sun against his cheek, fell asleep.
He awoke to something licking his hand. Opening his eyes, he recognized the Rasta’s mutts. He sat up and there was Rasta Jesus watching him with those sea-blue eyes, squatting atop his ATV, popping almonds into his mouth. And strapped on the back of the ATV were Eduardo’s three surfboards that had taken him half his life to purchase. He wondered how the Rasta had found them, but then thought better than to ask. He would only get some riddle in return. ‘Thank you so much,’ Eduardo said. ‘Surfing is all I know how to do.’
‘What are you waiting for, mai?’ Rasta Jesus said. ‘Let’s go.’
Eduardo lent him one of his boards, and the two waded into the water side by side. Although weeks had passed since the Rasta had first appeared in Malpais, Eduardo had never gone surfing with him. He had only studied the Rasta’s quick elegance from afar. But as the afternoon sun sparkled across the cresting sets, Eduardo caught one curling wave after another. In the barrel he was both inside the world and shut out of it. Later he would think back on that afternoon and the Rasta Jesus and remind himself, yes, this is how the Rasta knew to be, always disappearing into a tunnel of water but only for a breath, and then shooting out the other side. To know breaks and tides was to know the workings of the universe better than scientists, rabbis or priests.
Eduardo rocketed out of a tumbling wave—the surf was starting to close out—when he saw the Rasta sprinting on top of the water, his surfboard splashing behind his ankle like a toy. The Rasta, still suspended, scooped up a girl floating face down just before the Pacific pummeled Eduardo underneath its murky depths.
Even before he reached the shore, and he was paddling fast, arms and shoulders burning, Eduardo saw that he wasn’t the solo witness to the Rasta’s bending of space. Tourists in sarongs and fancy sunglasses flocked to the spot where the Rasta knelt resuscitating the girl. A dripping Eduardo pushed them aside. ‘He needs room, please,’ Eduardo begged; the Rasta’s dreadlocks shook and he made a shrill humming sound in his throat. Panicked voices in English chopped the humid air, ‘he’s going to kill her,’ a lady said. ‘Is this man a doctor?’ The thick scent of sunscreen filled Eduardo’s throat as he repeated his commands. ‘He needs air,’ Eduardo said, but no one heard him. The Rasta was breathing hard, trying to gather enough into his chest, but every time he brought his cupped hands together to the girl’s gaping mouth, sucked and spat, only a mouthful of water hit the sand.
This time, the gringa didn’t make it.
Life wasn’t so easy for Rasta Jesus then. When he appeared in the towns of Malpais or Santa Teresa, people either flocked to him and grasped his rough hands, begging for him to heal a sick relative or tell them the future. Others kept their distance, changed barstools if he sat down next to them; they were unsure why this man, who dozens had seen sprint across the water, couldn’t succeed in bringing the drowned girl back to life. A few even blamed him for being unlucky. Such a strange man was bound to cause trouble, they said, and he should leave before he gave the town a bad name.
Days passed and the rains arrived, but the Rasta Jesus remained. He moved off the beach to a maid’s room in the back of one of the bungalow hotels and strung hemp necklaces with beads and sold these along with his coco shells. One afternoon Eduardo was riding his 4-wheeler to the falafel stand in the rain when he spotted the Rasta on the side of the road. The Rasta was wearing a giant white garbage bag for a poncho and had wrapped his mass of dreads in a white plastic bag, too, so that he looked like an odd plastic-wrapped alien-angel.
‘Need a lift?’ Eduardo asked.
‘Surf, mai,’ the Rasta said. As he spoke, the rain drummed down his lips and splashed his gleaming teeth. ‘Can you take me to Mexico?’ He raised a plastic bag, this one heavy as a laundry sack but stuffed full. Hemp necklaces poked out the gap at the top.
‘The rain can’t last more than another day or two,’ Eduardo said. Even as he spoke, he found himself shouting because of the monsoon waters. ‘You won’t catch a bus coming here till the road dries out, anyway.’
The Rasta glanced up at the sky, wished Eduardo well, and turned back down the drive toward the bungalow hotel. Eduardo continued down the road, but something stirred in his heart. The mention of Mexico, the one place he hadn’t surfed yet in Latin America. He didn’t know much about Mexico, but he’d heard of the breaks on the Baja Peninsula and near Alcapulco. Up there didn’t get much rain.
Eduardo had told the surfers his version of the drowning, plus the prelude of the stolen and retrieved surfboards. That episode won over most of his friends. For some of them, at least, the girl’s unhappy end proved one thing—that Rasta Jesus wasn’t the Jesus sent to redeem the world after all. For much of the wet season, they had sat around the falafel joint with rain striking the tin roof as deafening as machine gun fire. They drank beers, smoked ganja and debated who the Rasta really was, over and over again. Today Eduardo told them about the episode on the road, that the Rasta Jesus looked like he might be leaving for good.
‘If he was going to leave, he’d be gone already,’ Don said. ‘Any coward can slink out when people start to talk shit, but not Jesus.’ He winked at the rest of them over the joint he was rolling.
‘No way is he Jesus Christ,’ the skeptic witness to the first near-drowning said. ‘The real Jesus would have never been able to raise someone from the dead one day and the next day, screw it up.’
‘Maybe he just wasn’t in the zone,’ Don said. His tan had faded with the absence of the sun, and white hairs peppered the blonde at his temples. ‘So if he’s not Jesus, so what? He’s the best surfer I’ve ever seen who’s never gone pro. Who do you think he is?’ Don said and nudged Eduardo.
‘I don’t know,’ Eduardo said. ‘I hope he sticks around for awhile.’
The conversation turned to a bet if the rains would stop tomorrow, and then a debate on whether or not to trust the surf report and drive over to the Caribbean where Salsa Brava was supposedly going off. Eduardo eyed the map of Latin America tacked to the wall a few feet away. He had never traveled north of Nicaragua. Maybe he and Jesus could travel together.
On the way home, he bounded up to the Rasta’s quarters, a concrete block room next to the laundry facilities. Rasta Jesus sat on his cot with his board across his lap, waxing as fast as a hummingbird’s wing. Eduardo leaned in the doorway a full two minutes before the Rasta took notice.
‘Rains will be gone overnight,’ Rasta Jesus said. ‘Get ready.’
‘What about Mexico?’ Eduardo said.
The Rasta paused in his waxing. He clucked his teeth and made a quick, knife-slitting gesture across his throat. ‘Too dangerous,’ he said. ‘But that will pass. What’s wrong with Malpais? Here’s not such a bad place, mai.’ He grinned and waited for Eduardo to answer before returning to his board.
But Eduardo didn’t reply. He stood there for a few more moments, scanning the room which contained nothing but the board, the clothes the Rasta was wearing, and the neat piles of hemp, beads, and coco shells on a tabletop. If there was a quieter room apart from the rest of the world, Eduardo couldn’t guess.
He rode home with his poncho hood pulled down because the raindrops were falling lighter and further apart, and he laughed as the air struck his face.
The rains poured for four long months, and the road melted to mud and houses slid down the hillsides. When the skies cleared and the dry season returned, Rasta Jesus moved back to his campsite down the beach with his dogs. The big waves swelled and the surfers paddled out to ride them, and Eduardo always watched out for the Rasta ducking into a barrel, the black dreads flying behind him. But by the end of the season Eduardo, feeling some unresolved and inexplicable yearning, traded his ATV for a van and packed his boards for Mexico.
Photo By: anthony_goto